Being Poor in Jerusalem: Pre-1967 Memories
After I graduated from Cambridge University, I went to study at Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The yeshiva was located in a small industrial quarter, sandwiched between Meah Shearim and the Mandelbaum Gate. In those pre-1967 days, the Mandlebaum Gate was the crossing point between between west Jerusalem (the new city) and east Jerusalem (the Old City), which was then occupied by Jordan and under the control of the Jordanian Legion.
A concrete wall divided the two sections, and one would often see Jordanian soldiers patrolling the ramparts of the Old City. Sometimes they fired, seemingly at random, into the new city.
During the 1967 War, the yeshiva was shelled as the students sat in the subterranean dining room. You can still see the patched brickwork on the western façade where the building was hit. After the war, Jerusalem changed dramatically, as the unified city opened up to new vistas and populations. But before the war, the city was so small it seemed that everyone knew everyone else. Mir was in a pretty run-down area, and some of the destitute lived in makeshift huts and cardboard shelters right up into no-man’s land.
The yeshiva’s large study hall, the beit midrash, was packed throughout the day. It was always stuffy and very noisy, as everyone argued and shouted or sang, often trying to solve the complex problems in the Gemara. In summer, the haze was compounded by clouds of cigarette smoke. Everyone in those days smoked.
Throughout the day as we studied, beggars kept up a constant stream, clinking the coins in their hands under our noses, as a way of asking for donations as they passed up and down the gangways between the rows of benches and shtenders. Some were well-dressed and even elegant. Others wore smelly rags and were clearly down and out. We would have rows of small coins ready at hand to dispense to the beggars until we ran out.
In those days, most of the students in Mir were married. They went home to sleep. So by the night study session, only a few remained — mainly those who, like me, slept in a dormitory in the building. And by midnight in winter time, the hall was all but empty, except for a few beggars who had crept in to lie on the benches and enjoy some warmth from the stove during the bitter winter nights. I often stayed up late studying, and saw and interacted with these people.
Among those who came in for warmth was an elderly man in old tattered clothes that he never changed, and shoes with holes in them. Most of the time he dozed by the fire. But when he was awake, he would open a Chumash and seem to be studying. We sat as far away from him as we could — because he really stank. On occasion, we would engage him in a brief conversation, but he was rarely lucid. He never asked for money, but he would accept anything we gave him.
I recall one late night when he was present. It was late and cold, and a professional beggar came into the hall, and started clinking his hand for donations. The poor old man rose from his sleeping position and fumbled around under his clothes. He took out an old worn leather purse and found a grush — a cent — and gave it to the beggar. To my surprise and anger, the fellow took it. I was amazed. I did not know anyone poorer or more destitute than that poor man, and yet he still gave to a much better-dressed and better-off man than he was. I went over to him. I asked him, “Why did you give your money to him? You know he doesn’t need it as much as you.”
The old man looked at me and smiled. He said, “The Torah commands everyone to give charity. Me, as well.”
A week later, the old man was not there where he usually lay late at night. Nor was he there the following night, which was very, very cold. In the morning, a fellow student and I wondered where he was. We asked around. No one seemed to know. But the kitchen helper said he thought the man might be living among the huts and shelters near the border. We went in search of him. Eventually we found him, covered in cardboard and newspapers, in the cellar of an abandoned building. He was dead. We ran to the burial society, and they went and picked up his body.
I will never forget that old man. I have never gone without food or shelter. I give charity, but never to the extent that he did. Whenever I think of him, I feel profound sadness that there is such destitution. I regret that I didn’t do more. But at the same time, I feel profound gratitude for having known him. Most of us have no idea how spoiled we are. This man remains someone that I respected for his simplicity and nobility, even in the depths of destitution. He was an unknown, silent Jew.