Winter 2000/5761

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Having a richer SPIRITUAL life.

Giving and Being Jewish

A New Twist on Tzedakah: 
The Pretzel Lady

by Arnold Fine 


Did you ever see one of those wonderful people who sold the huge salty pretzels from tiny little stands on nearly every corner of New York city? The pretzels and their sellers are very much a part of the famous flavor of that great city. 
   I distinctly remember the lady who sold pretzels on the corner near our school in the Bronx. Regardless of the weather, this sweet little old woman stood on the corner with her basket of pretzels trying to earn her way. 
   Our pretzel seller looked like someone’s grandmother. She had the most beautiful silver-gray hair I have ever seen and her small round face, almost like a cherub, was always a bright red during the freezing winter months. 
   One year, the last day of school before winter vacation coincided with the first night of Chanukah. The air was brisk and the snowflakes were just beginning to fall, tickling our nose and ears as we walked out of school toward the corner. 
    There she was, waiting for us; we always saved two cents for a stop at the pretzel lady. It was almost like a ritual. 
   The pretzels were covered with a white sheet of paper to protect them from the weather. The old lady had a scarf covering her head with a knot tied neatly beneath her chin. She wore a heavy sweater with a shawl covering her shoulders. 
    She smiled warmly as we approached, and said, "I saved the warm ones for you. I have them wrapped in paper. I know how you like the pretzels warm." 
    We felt so proud, getting this VIP treatment. After we made our purchase she said softly, "Have a wonderful happy Chanukah, children. Dress warm and stay healthy. Don’t get sick from the snow." 
   As we walked away, my little brother Berel commented sadly in between chomps on his pretzel, "She must be a pretty poor lady." 
   "I guess so," I added, chewing away as the snow continued to come down in full fury. 
   Berel was concerned. "Do you think she made enough money today selling pretzels to buy candles for her Chanukah menorah?" he questioned. 
   "Gee, I dunno…" I sighed, getting a little more concerned. 
    "Mamma’s got an extra box," he volunteered. "I’ll run home and get the candles, you go back and tell her to wait." He took off running in the direction of our house. 
   I ran back to the corner where she sold pretzels, but our pretzel lady was already gone. I looked around and saw her trudging through the snow about a block and a half away lugging her heavy basket of unsold pretzels. She continued for another block or so and then turned into an alley between two old apartment houses. 
   By the time I reached the alley she was gone, but there were fresh tracks in the snow leading to a small door in the basement of one of the buildings. 
   I looked in a window and sure enough, there she was. There was a bare wooden table on one side of the small room along with two orange crates for chairs. On her table was a small, inexpensive Chanukah menorah. In another corner, near the broken-down sink, were two little gas burners. There was a coffee pot on one burner. 
    I started to walk back to the street to find Berel. By the time I reached the school, he was standing on the corner. "Where’d ya go?" he shouted. "I thought you ran out on me." I explained what had happened and assured him I remembered where she lived. Together we began the trek back to the alley. When we got to the door we knocked, but there was no answer. We knocked a little harder, but still no answer. 
    Berel ran to the window then shouted, "She’s lying on the floor!" I ran to the window and could see her stretched out near the sink. 
    We tried to open the door but it was locked, so we ran out on to the street to get help. Just then a man was passing by. We told him what we saw and he followed us into the alley and looked through the window. He first tried the door and then with all his might he broke it in.We ran into the apartment. The whole place smelled of gas. 
    He shouted for us to open the window. He ran to the stove and shut off the gas jet. Apparently the pot of coffee she had been boiling had run over and put out the flame, but the gas had continued to flow. 
    The man dragged the old lady toward the door for fresh air. When she didn’t respond right away he began slapping her face until she started to come to. 
    In a few minutes she was able to sit up. When she did she recognized Berel and I, but was confused. She asked what had happened. When the man explained, she started to smile and offered us a free pretzel. 
    When the gas fumes were cleared out and we had closed the window, Berel took out the package of Chanukah candles and told her how we had an extra box and thought she might need some. 
    She smiled warmly and said that she wanted to pay us for the candles in pretzels. But since Berel had already put away three, we politely refused. 
    Then she put two candles in the Chanukah menorah sitting on the table, said the prayers, and lit the candles. As a warm glow filled the room, the man noticed a very old book on the shelf. He picked it up and looked at it curiously. Most of the pages were frayed and the binding was gone. It looked like junk. 
    As he began looking through the book, she said, "That’s a very old book. Old like me. Worthless!" 
    The man continued to look at the book then said, "Would you sell me this book? I happen to be a book dealer. I sell old books and I would be more than happy to give you two hundred dollars for this book!" 
    The woman looked at him with disbelief. "It’s an old book. Do you really think it has any value?" 
    "Will you sell it to me?" the man asked again. 
    "Let me give it to you, after all, you saved my life," she said. 
    "Oh no, that wouldn’t be fair, you would be taking away my
mitzvah," he responded as he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a handful of bills. 
    He counted out two hundred dollars, handed it to her and then gave my brother and I five dollars each. "This is my Chanukah gift to you boys for being so alert and thoughtful." 
    The three of us walked from the house together as the snow continued to fall. The man said he was late and hurried ahead of us. We watched as he moved through the snow swiftly. When he reached the corner, he passed a garbage can, paused for a second, then threw the old book into the can, and continued on his way. 
     It was then we realized that he had not wanted the book at all — rather, he wanted to do something for the little old woman without embarrassing her. We never saw the man again though we were certain he lived in the neighborhood. We never knew who he was, but he certainly made one old lady happy that Chanukah and made a lasting impression on Berel and me. 

Arnold Fine is the editor of
The Jewish Press in Brooklyn, New York. His article will be in the upcoming Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, author of Melodies From My Father’s House. To submit your TRUE story, 1200 words or less, for consideration in the upcoming book Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul, mail to Chicken Soup for the Soul Enterprise™, Inc. P.O. Box 30880, Santa Barbara, CA 93130.  

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