| Family Tempo |

Giver of Infinity

Everything she had was in a shopping bag — and now it was lost


alia hugs her shawl. The bus shelter offers a mere mask of protection against the hard chill, and the wind is unusually vicious today.

Sitting at the end of the bench, she watches chapters of life passing her by. People surge onward, some with pinched expressions, others with the calm certainty of those who belong to society.

Dalia wonders what it would feel like to belong. She herself sits on the fringe, like the tree that falls, unheard and alone, in the forest. Is there a sound of impact if no one’s around to hear the crashing of the leaves and branches, the thunder of the mighty trunk hitting the ground? Does it even happen at all?

Above her head is plastered an enlarged image of Shimon Peres. Now there’s a man who has a place in society, Dalia thinks. And based on the campaign that was taking over the country, his position was so comfortable that there was probably enough space for him to share.

But what did that mean to her? Nothing. He was just a cold face on the wall.

The wind whistles through the gaps in the glass. Dalia wishes she had a coat.

A kindly old man drops a few shekels into the aluminum pan sitting at her feet. The coins jingle. Now there’s a noise that’s real, she thinks. But then again, money always is.

Is she herself real? Maybe only in the nightmares of people grateful they’re not the ones sitting on a bench, clinging to a single, faded bag. But it is these few possessions that are tethering her to life and the living. What is she without them? Is she anything at all?

Dalia pulls a worn set of mittens out of the bag. It is cold, so cold, and she feels adrift. Would she still be here if she lets go of her bag, she wonders, just like… so? She pulls on her mittens and looks at her hands. They feel disembodied, grasping at nothing at but air.

She must have nodded off, because suddenly she hears, “Giveret! Giveret!” and she blinks to find a bus idling a few feet away.

She stumbles to her feet, stomps for a moment to shock life back into them. Then she shuffles to the road, aluminum pan in hand. It takes her a while to step onto the bus, her extremities are near frozen, but the driver waits patiently for her to climb up before he swings into traffic.

His head is bare, but this driver is a tzaddik; she’s sure of it. He is always so patient with her, so kind, even though his stiff mustache reminds her of a monster from Austria whose name she will not say.

The bus rumbles along, and Dalia peers into her pan. To her surprise, there are a few more shekels in there now. People are good. Jews are good. She knows that. Now she may have enough to purchase a sandwich. Maybe even with eggs.

Dalia murmurs some Tehillim as the bus approaches the Kosel, and she works hard to keep her thoughts away from bread, scrambled eggs, warm milk, maybe even cheese… But she can’t help it; she’s hungry.

She is so hungry that only when she disembarks does she realize that she left her bag at the bus shelter. And there’s no telling whether it would still be there in 24 hours.

Standing stock-still, Dalia reels at her loss. Her bag. Those last gossamer threads holding her here — all gone.

With a loud snort of fumes, the bus pulls away. Dalia does not move. It’s only when she notices the uneasy glances of passersby that she approaches a nearby bench to sit down.

There was nothing very valuable in the bag, she tells herself. Another pair of gloves, her purple umbrella, some crackers, maybe. No use getting worked up about it.

But the loss still smarts. All she has left now is a pan.

Dalia remembers to be grateful for that. At least she could get herself some breakfast. Or lunch. But first, she wants to visit the Wall. Maybe there will be more coins in the pan when she finishes davening Minchah, maybe even enough to add a warm drink to her lunch. She directs her attention to the texts she knows like family, forgetting her hunger.

It is only after she finishes Minchah and her sefer Tehillim that Dalia gets up to leave. She doesn’t know it, but so does a much younger woman in a heavy down coat. The young woman has spent most of her midday hours at the Kosel too, with one eye on the lonely woman wrapped in a dark green shawl who prays with soft and unhurried focus.

Keeping her distance, the younger woman follows Dalia across the Plaza and into the Old City. Maintaining a distance is difficult, because Dalia backs away from the Wall slowly, lost in thought, oblivious to the individuals jumping away from her as she nearly backs into them.

The younger woman cringes each time this happens. She knows she shouldn’t, but she can’t help it.

After a long, slow walk, Dalia reaches a simple eatery and steps inside. She is grateful for the warmth, though she misses her bag. Now she’ll have to carry her money in the pan, or hold the shekels she’s collected in her hand, and neither option is good. It means she’ll be directed to a corner table, where a poor old woman who tends to solicit donations to pay for her meals won’t turn away business.

But what can she do? She is only Dalia, a woman who lives off the goodness of others, a woman who is only a whisper in the wind.

The younger woman purchases a large latte and sits down right near the exit. As she sips, she watches the older woman down her hot cocoa in one go, after which she seems to relax and sheds her shawl.

She will wait until the woman has satisfied her hunger, the younger woman decides. Presumably this is her first meal of the day, despite the late hour.

Dalia slowly eats her sandwich. She feels the energy seep from her very insides outward, and soon she is warmed all the way through.

When she takes a moment to look up from her plate, she notices a pair of dark eyes watching her. They are looking at her with intensity, but there is compassion in their gaze. Then the eyes quickly look down at the latte on the table, and Dalia returns to her own food.

She is still working her way through the very last quarter of her sandwich when a shadow falls over her table, and Dalia looks up. It’s the woman who was watching her. Dalia puts her food down onto her plate, keeps her eyes lowered.

“Hello,” the woman says.

Dalia blinks fast and looks at her food. What does this woman want from her?

“Are you Dalia?”

Dalia starts.

“Don’t be afraid,” the woman says. “I’m here to help. Can I sit down?”

Dalia doesn’t answer, but the woman sits down anyway.

“Dalia, have you ever heard of Batei Lev?”

Dalia turns her head to the wall and tries to quash the terror blooming in her stomach. How do these people have her name? What do they want?

She considers getting up and running, but the woman would surely catch up with her before she walks three feet.

“Batei Lev is about getting people back on their own feet,” the woman continues. “We offer temporary homes to women, kind of like a stepping stone to the real thing.”

Dalia turns back from the wall. The monster of terror in her belly recedes, but it is replaced with deep shame. What was this, some more public assistance? As if living off shekels from a pan wasn’t humiliating enough?

“Batei Lev also arranges for employment.” The younger woman seems to be reading her mind. “So there are no handouts. Tenants get what they deserve fair and square by paying us 35 percent of their earned wages each week.”

“Tenants.” Dalia’s voice is hoarse with disuse, but the word feels nice on her tongue. Tenants.

“Would you think about joining us? You look like a great candidate. And we have a location right in the center of the city that I think you’d like.”

Dalia doesn’t say anything.

Tenant, she thinks. Candidate.

She was a tenant once, a lifetime or two ago. Except it needed no candidacy back then; she just was. She and Zev together. Before it all began slipping away and unraveling, faster, faster, faster — until it was all gone.

The woman slips a card onto the table. Noa Dahan. “Here. Call me anytime.”

The woman — Noa — closes her purse, slings it onto her shoulder, and Dalia thinks fast. Was there anything she could lose by saying yes? Her independence?

What independence? Zev’s voice says. You’re living alone, in the cold, wherever you can find a wall and shelter from rain!

Dalia coughs, a dry rasp. “Okay,” she says.

Noa blinks. “Okay what?”

Dalia finally lifts her eyes to meet Noa’s. “I thought about it, and my answer is okay. I’ll come.” And, to maintain her dignity, she adds, “I’ll try it for one week.

Dalia and Noa are sitting into a passing taxi when Dalia remembers.

“My bag!”

“Oh!” Noa says. “Should I run back in and get it?”

“No… It’s at a bus shelter. I left it there this morning.”

“Oh.” Noa thinks for a moment. “Maybe we can pick it up on the way. Do you know which bus shelter it was?”

Dalia frowns. “Yes. I know my way around my city.”

“Of course,” Noa says. “I apologize.” And she sounds sincere, too.

Dalia thinks about the contents of her bag. Her purple umbrella: blocking rain, useless against the winds. Some crackers. And finally, her second pair of gloves.

She’d be pleased if others could make use of the items in the bag, she decides. Perhaps a woman would soon be sheltering under the umbrella — or use it to dash across the street. And perhaps an old man could warm his arthritic fingers with her gloves — fill his stomach with some crackers…

The bag, Dalia realizes, holds her ability to give. At last she has enough to spare. The thought fills her with a wondrous sense of wealth.

“No,” she says finally, her voice imbued with purpose she hasn’t felt in years. “There are others who need those things more than I do.”

Noa looks into Dalia’s eyes. “Are you sure?”

Dalia nods. “I’m sure.”

Noa gives the driver of the cab an address, and he pulls into traffic. Dalia looks out the window, grateful for the temporary haven.

“I used to take a cab like this to work sometimes,” she tells Noa.

Noa looks surprised, and Dalia feels a flicker of triumph.

“Before my husband was sick, before he passed on, and I was ill myself… before there were the bills and then—”

Dalia shrugs and turns back to the window.

“What did you do before, well…. What kind of work did you do?”

Dalia thinks back to those once-monotonous days, which have spun their way into a glorious memory over time.

“I used to bake hand matzah.” Dalia spreads her fingers and looks at them. “I was the quickest worker in the bakery.”

“And you didn’t return after your… illness?”

“Oh, I wanted to. But I was ashamed,” Dalia says quietly. “And my hands… they’re weak.”

Noa leans back on the seat, and she is quiet. Some stories demand respect more than a response.

A bed. Dalia has almost forgotten what it feels like to lie on something so soft. She is wearing a nightgown — a nightgown! — and hanging in her closet she has three new sets of clothing from a local gemach. She will repay Batei Lev the token sum the clothes cost once she is employed.

After a few minutes Dalia realizes that her shoulders are tense, her jaw is tight. Summoning all the trust she can gather, she relaxes into the mattress and closes her eyes.

Immediately, she thinks of her bag. Surely someone used her gloves today, used her umbrella; surely it has offered protection to another needy head or support for other aching hands. With wonder, Dalia realizes it is the first time in years that she doesn’t know the weather outside.

Dalia fills with warmth. Her hands feel real once again — they have given. Her heart humming with quiet joy, she drifts off to sleep.

The next day, Dalia joins her housemates in the kitchen to eat breakfast. The fare is simple but hearty, and while Dalia isn’t an active participant, the conversation around her is pleasant.

Soon there is a lull in the conversation.

“Who cooks this food?” Dalia asks the kerchiefed woman sitting next to her.

Dalia notices that the woman, unlike herself, is no longer lined with the haggardness of the streets. She has probably been here for a while.

“The newcomers whose jobs aren’t set up yet,” the woman replies. “They get paid the same they would for any domestic work.”

Dalia nods and looks at her hands. The age spots haven’t faded any, but her hands are warm now. And no more will they be idle. No more will she exist purely off the goodness of others.

“And what happens if someone here just refuses to work?” Not that Dalia would shirk her duties — she wouldn’t even like to — but she’s been wondering about this.

“I’m not sure,” the woman replies. “I think their case gets transferred to a city social worker.”

After breakfast Noa stops by, and she beams at Dalia.

“You look wonderful. How was your night?”

It’s hard for Dalia to find the right words. “It was very… restful. Very soft.”

Noa’s smile grows wider. “I’m glad to hear that,” she says. “Now just try to get back to yourself, and in the meantime, we’ll work on finding a job for you.”

“Don’t I need… should I… do I need to help out here?” Dalia asks.

“Only if you aren’t yet employed in two or three days,” Noa says. “Unless you choose otherwise, of course.”

“I do,” Dalia says immediately. “I’d like to get to work today.”

“Wonderful.” Noa thinks for a moment. “Today won’t work, but tomorrow is okay. Can you cook? Cut up food? Peel potatoes? We’ll pay you for the work, of course.”

Of course. Dalia still can’t believe it.

“Kitchen work is perfect, thank you,” she says, and, embarrassed at the warm flood of tears that prick the corners of her eyes, she ducks her head and walks back to her room.

Dalia sits on her bed. She wonders if she will ever tire of its softness, of the layers of cotton and fill.

She sees the rest of the day yawning open before her, and she’s not sure how to fill it. She’s never been one to be idle, but how to fill the hours if she no longer has to hunt for food and shelter?

Maybe she can go to the Kosel to deliver her thanks to the Provider of all, she thinks. And the bus! she remembers suddenly. Her kind mustached driver is probably worrying about her.

Dalia gets to her feet once again and gathers a water bottle and a siddur. She knows her driver’s route and schedule by heart, and the nearest stop isn’t that far away.

Wrapped in a proper coat, the walk is almost pleasant, and Dalia reaches the bus stop ahead of schedule. And when the bus comes, Dalia steps up easily. She is well rested, wears respectable clothes. Most significantly, her belly is full.

The driver notices. He never greets his passengers, but today he exclaims, “Shalom!”

Dalia smiles. “Shalom.”

“I have something for you!” He bends over his seat and reaches for something. “Here,” he says, handing her a shopping bag.

Her shopping bag.

Dalia’s smile freezes. Her bag. She knows she should be pleased, but a heaviness fills her chest instead.

And still she couldn’t provide?

In her mind’s deepest recesses of desire, her umbrella has already shielded tens of people, her crackers have fed the hungry. And her gloves have been worn once and again, to shield long fingers and short ones, thin ones and wide ones.

In her heart she is a giver. And now she has been deprived of even this.

But the driver. The driver is hurt at her lack of reaction. Dalia knows this, even though he remains silent. It is in the dimming of his eyes, the faltering of his smile.

Drawing strength from his kindness, Dalia beams and thanks him profusely. Blessings pour from her mouth, and he allows himself a small smile in return.

Todah,” he says simply.

The muttering of the waiting passengers behind her grows louder, and she heads to a nearby seat.

The Wall is waiting, and she has praises to sing.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 798)

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