by Adam Eliyahu and Devora Gila Berkowitz
We’re neighbors, Naftali and I, but we have little in common. He’s already married off two children, my eldest is not quite in first grade. He’s a high-profile heavy-hitter, an aggressive businessman, and I’m a misanthropic hermit, happy to be left alone. But we do share two passions,—a good cup of coffee and an even better story.
Naftali’s son, an old friend of mine, owns a cafe that brews the best espresso in Israel. And so, after a long night at work, I decided to treat myself—or let him treat me with his usual offer of a free cup of coffee. Naftali happened to be there and waved to me from the corner where he sat out of the way, watching the waiters lift wooden chairs onto the tables as they prepared to tuck in the restaurant for the night.
“So, what’s the young man doing these days?” he said in his amusing, lilting manner.
“A little fundraising for a worthy cause,” I said simply. He smiled so wide I could see the dimples peeking through his graying beard. This was a sure sign that I had given him an opening for one of his celebrated tales. Settling back into my chair, I sipped the last drops of my espresso, knowing that I was in for a good one.
Naftali licked the whipped cream off his mustache, stroked his beard with one hand and began. “When I was in yeshiva, I had a problem with arrogance. My rabbi knew that the best way to break my pride was to send me out to collect charity, door to door. The cause was the best. A young couple, both orphans, were getting married. But he knew that it wouldn’t be enough for me just to ask for money. He wanted me to get some real-life experience, something that would strengthen my connection with Torah.
“So he sent me and my friend to the richest neighborhood, notoriously anti-religious. Walking the streets lined with luxury sedans, adorned with peyos and beard, kippah and knee-length tzitzit, we were as out of place as honey-dipped challah at the Pesach seder. The first door we knocked on was quickly slammed in our faces. At the second, a man peeked through the eye hole and asked us to wait for a minute. A moment later, he opened the door and yelled, “Get ‘em!” We heard the sound of claws clicking and sliding across marble as a Rotweiler ran right toward us. For out-of-shape yeshiva bochers, we made amazing time getting out of there.
“The next three hours were the same thing, over and over again. They threw insults at us, shouted names I cannot repeat, even spat in our faces. My friend and I were totally disheartened. We vowed that the next door would be our last.
“We knocked and an elderly woman opened the door a few inches. Looking over the chain, I noted that her dress was down-to-earth, simple clothing and unpretentious jewelry no doubt purchased at the most exclusive shops.
“‘Ye-e-esss?’ she chimed, peering down the length of her nose at us.
“I braced myself, saying the words without feeling, glad that one way or the other, our mission was almost at an end. ‘Excuse me, madam, but we’re collecting for, uh, a young couple that is getting married next week. They are both orphans and uh, have absolutely nothing.’”
“I’ll never forget how we stared at each other for a long minute over the taut chain that kept the door from opening fully. I waited for her to say something, hurl an insult or break into angry outburst. But she remained silent, her mind wandering far away. Finally she cleared her throat. ‘P-please wait here a moment,’ she said, removing the chain, she let the door float open as she stepped back into her luxury apartment. My friend and I shot glances at each other, ready to make another run for it. We were relieved when the lady came back alone, signaling for us to follow her into the kitchen.
“‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ she asked softly, her voice becoming warm.
“We hesitated. She sensed our apprehension. Our unspoken reluctance to eat or drink in her non-kosher house hung between us. Without waiting for our explanations or attempts at polite refusal, she poured hot water into two styrofoam cups.
“‘Do you have a car?’ she asked.
“I nodded, a bit confused. She disappeared back into the apartment, returning shortly with her arms full of packages. She set them down in piles near the front door; expensive linen sheets from the city’s finest stores. She went back and forth, stacking more bags and boxes in the hallway. You should have seen it—everything a new couple could possibly want: costly silverware, beautiful glassware, crystal serving dishes, fine curtains and tablecloths, silver candlesticks, all of the highest quality.
“Then she joined us at the table with her own cup of tea served in an elegant china cup. After her first sip, she put down her tea, the cup rattling slightly against the dish.
“‘What took you so long?’ she sighed, ‘I’ve been waiting quite a while to give these things to someone. They’ve been….in the way, taking up space. You see,’ she continued, ‘my only child—my daughter—’
“She cleared her throat. ‘My daughter was engaged to be married three years ago. She was on her way back from the engagement party when her little sports car was hit by a truck. I couldn’t bring myself to return all of the lovely things I had purchased. The money was irrelevant. I felt attached to the gifts and couldn’t just get rid of them. Please pass these things on. I’m sure it’s what my daughter would have wanted.’”
“It took us several trips to load the car and when we were finished there wasn’t an inch to spare. The older woman stood like a statue, her arms crossed over her chest, and watched us with a sad smile. The elegant packages seemed so out of place in my old junker, I was sure we looked like thieves and prayed we wouldn’t get pulled over by a cop. Without receipts for all the merchandise we would surely have been arrested. As we gathered the last of the packages, she stepped forward and nodded with satisfaction.
Naftali stopped in mid-sentence. I was eager to know how the story ended.
“Nu?” I nudged him.
“Well,” he said, stretching his long legs under the table, his hands clasped behind his head. “As we were about to pull away, she stopped us.”
“‘Come back in nine months,’ she called after us, ‘I know the perfect store for baby clothes.’”
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