“Look at him, at him, behind the stained shirt and missing teeth, and you can’t help loving him, he’s another Jew”
t was a second-day Yom Tov chutznik minyan; we needed a tenth man. Our relatives made seven. They’d scrounged up numbers eight and nine, and finally, as night fell over the narrow, winding streets of Nachlaot, someone drifted past the house. Craggy whiskers in a brown face. A granny cart filled with empty bottles.
“Can you be part of the minyan tonight and tomorrow?” my uncle asked. “We’ll give you 100 shekel.”
He parks his basket against the wall, comes inside. He takes a siddur, flicks through it. His words are garbled. No teeth. No one can really understand him. He’s our tenth man, but he keeps leaving the living room/makeshift shul to check on his cart again and again.
We exhale when he takes his cart and clatters off after the day’s davening is over. He seemed helpless and harmless, but who knew where he spent his days?
Come afternoon, there’s a rap on the door.
It’s the tenth man. “Me’ah shekel, nu.”
“It’s Yom Tov for us, we’ll pay you tonight,” we explain.
He shakes his head, thunder lines forming on his forehead. “Me’ah shekel.”
He shuffles in, sits at the table. My uncle offers him some Coke. He rummages in his basket, finds an old coffee tin, holds it out. My uncle shrugs and pours the Coke in. The man swigs it down. Afterwards, he draws out a string of pearls, dripping with Coke fizz.
“I got it from Machaneh Yehudah shuk,” he explains, “that’s my place, I sleep there.”
He scoops the pearls off the table, puts them back in the tin.
“Me’ah shekel,” he says, shaking the tin like a gragger, for emphasis.
“We can’t now. Soon.” My uncle gestures at his watch, then the clock on the wall. He holds out seven fingers to show he can come back at seven o’clock. Nothing doing. The man shakes his tin can louder, stronger, his frustration making the pearls jump over the edge.
The men lead him to the door. He stands on the front step with his cart and will not move.
Two police motorcycles drive past. The policemen see him, stop.
“He often bothers people around here, is he bothering you?”
We explain the story. How he doesn’t understand that we’ll pay him later. They try to talk to him, in Hebrew, in Russian.
“Me’ah shekel, me’ah shekel,” he repeats desperately.
And then she is there. A woman in a faded red dress, her eyes bright and intent. She comes close to the man and talks to him, her voice low, soft, soothing. Slowly, the man follows her down the front step and up the street.
“Leave it to me,” she says to the police.
(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 663)