My grandma taught meaning of tzedakah

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When I was 5 years old, I learned a lesson that has remained with me for my entire life.

It happened that Bubbie lived with us. She was well advanced in years, and in those days you didn't talk about putting the elderly members of the family in a nursing home.

All that I remember was that she did not speak English, that she was a wonderful baker and cook (what she could do with an onion, a carrot, a sweet potato — my mouth still waters), that her arms were designed for hugs and embraces, that she smelled warm and soft, and that I was the apple of her eye.

We loved each other completely, and I knew that as far as Bubbie was concerned I could do no wrong. I could never do anything that was not absolutely perfect 100 percent. Never, until…

And so the story. Each Friday, Grandma baked the special Shabbos challahs. Also sponge cake, honey cake and cookies. And then, hand-in-hand, we walked five blocks to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum on Clay Avenue in the Bronx.

She gave the delicacies to the rebbe, a man of indeterminate age with a very determinate beard, and then she had a cup of tea while I went into the yard and played with the children who lived in the home. This happened every week. Shabbos came every week and we went to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum every week.

Although I didn't particularly care for the time I spent with those children, I somehow knew that this was my obligation. Then came that Friday when I said "no." I wasn't going to go with Bubbie. I preferred staying at home and playing with the little boy next door. So I said "no."

For a minute there was a silence, a silence like the sound of angel voices. Grandma looked at me and I looked at her. And then she spoke in halting and difficult English, a language that did not come easily, "You come."

I turned to Mama and Papa to enlist possible allies. But Papa had already retreated to the bathroom, newspaper in hand, and locked the door. This could be a long siege. Mama who never argued with Bubbie — except maybe about whether to put an extra carrot in the chicken soup — started to defend my position.

"Just this week, he's only a child next week, for sure."

Grandma didn't budge. Her eye was fixed on me and all she did was repeat, "You come." I knew that I had lost.

I tried one last maneuver, one final effort. I held out a few coins that I had been saving to help defray the cost of some desired toy. "Take this," I offered. "Put it in the tzedakah box."

And then there came a flood of words. Grandma let me have it with all the strength she could muster, a tirade of English that I never knew she possessed, so many English words and a few choice Yiddish expressions thrown in as well.

How could I be so selfish to try to buy my way out of doing an act of kindness, doing a real mitzvah, being thoughtful of others, to offer a few pennies so that I could cut myself off from my own flesh?

When she finished, I took her hand and we walked without speaking to Clay Avenue. The only time that this silence was broken was when Bubbie turned to me and in soft but firm accents said, "We do not speak of this again."

And we did not. And each week I went with Grandma. And each week I played with the children when Grandma had a cup of tea and delivered the Shabbos breads and cakes. Bubbie continued to hug me and tell me little stories about life in the Old Country and cradle me in her arms until three years later when she died and all the hugs stopped.

But the lesson remained. I know that as long as there is a child in the world who needs someone to play with, a child who is alone, I should wish most fervently that there would be someone who could hold out a hand to a more fortunate youngster and say, "You come."