Awhile ago, in downtown Jerusalem in the spring, I was walking on my way to my afternoon job teaching drums, waiting for the light to change along with a crowd of other people, my mind filled with those regular swirling concerns.
One guy who came up to the curb at the top of Ben Yehuda, I knew him slightly. He was an older Halabi guy with a black kippa, clean shaven, heavyset. I reflexively gave him a short nod.
“You know me?” he said. His voice was gravel.
“Yeah. You have a place in the shuk selling fish, right?” I replied. I knew immediately that he didn’t recognize me at all.
“My family has a fish stall.” He eyes were downcast.
“I used to go there sometimes, when we lived in Nachlaot.” I remembered the small place clearly, he and his beefy brothers in rubber aprons chopping up fish, spraying piscine guts to the floor with those industrial water nozzles. Nice guys. I didn’t go there so often because they closed early on Fridays, to get home, and in those days I was always at the shuk very close to Shabbat.
“You know me?” he repeated. He looked at me intently and said, “Forgive me, maybe this is from Hashem.”
And then: “Listen brother, I don’t know you but maybe you can help me. I don’t work at my family’s place anymore, I had a problem with my father… I don’t know what to do.” His voice was soft. “Can you help me? I’ve tried everything to find work. I have kids, a wife, and I don’t have money to buy food for Shabbat.”
It was Thursday afternoon. “I don’t know,” I said. “I am barely making it also.”
It was true. With two young kids, trying to live an artistic life, my wife and I were always in the minus, scraping along, treading water. But… despite my negative bank balance, in my pocket I had a wallet full of cash from a wedding I had played the night before.
“If you can help me…” he implored. He must have been 50 years old or more, but he was tearing up, he was crying! On one of the busiest corners of Jerusalem, in front of a stranger. “Just for Shabbat, I am due to get some money on the 6th, May 6th. I will pay you back, I promise.”
“May 6th is my mom’s birthday,” I said quietly. It was three weeks away. My beautiful Ima, the still flower child at heart, who saw her eldest and only son move thousands of miles away from California and start a family in war-torn Israel.
“Can you help me?” he said again. “500 shekels would help me so much, Hashem will bless you!”
500!? Whaaat? “I wish I could help you, brother.”
He looked at me expectantly. He knew.
And so, as I also knew, from almost the beginning of our interaction, after a bit more haggling, I opened my heart to this down on his luck fishmonger. I got my wallet and gave him 250 shekels there on the corner of King George and Ben Yehuda, and he promised to pay it back on my mom’s birthday.
He thanked me profusely and blessed me abundantly. We exchanged cellphone numbers. I walked with him a bit and then he went into a supermarket.
May 6th came and went and I didn’t hear from him. Had I been scammed? I didn’t believe it. Poor guy, he seemed so sincere. Give him more time. It was a loan, right? Yes. He said so, he said he’d give me back the money. I called him a few times, but he didn’t answer. Damn!
Months passed. I didn’t really forget, and as our financial situation stayed not so hot, I began to occasionally fantasize about what I would do with those 250 sheks, and, more deeply, began to wonder, in that special way that Americans who immigrate to Israel wonder, if I had been a frier. A sucker. One every minute arrives in Jerusalem, with a flat U.S. of A. accent.
Because there was once another guy too, a cab driver with a sad story of getting divorced because he started to keep Shabbat and his wife wouldn’t stand for it, and his three daughters, and somehow I ended up giving him 150 shekels for the Hagim. And, let’s not forget my former friend the semi-homeless crazy musician, to whom I lent not a small amount of money one time to help cover his rent, but many moons later he said to my face, or rather, to my Facebook, that he had no intention of paying it back, sorry dude.
Well, I am obviously too nice for this world. Or a straight up sucker, getting played. Ooof. I began to think about going up to that family fish shop in the shuk, asking about this guy, making a ruckus, telling his estranged brothers that he had scammed me in the street, and what was up with that? But no.
More than a year later, I saw fish guy again, very early in the morning on the 71 bus heading down Derech Hevron. It was early summer. I was on my way to my new gig breaking some news at the Times of Israel.
The bus wasn’t so crowded and everyone was quiet. The sun was barely peeking from behind Har Homa and there he was, standing in that accordion-like passage between the two long cars. You’re not a frier, I told myself.
I stood next to him. He looked at me, and I knew that he remembered.
“You know me?” I asked.
Silence. He looked exactly the same: downtrodden. “You helped me once,” he finally said.
“I gave you money in the street. You said you’d pay me back, but then I didn’t hear from you.”
He didn’t say anything. “Can you pay me back now?” I asked.
“Things are still hard.” He looked at me sadly.
“You are a thief, you know that?” I was a bit upset. “I helped you even though I didn’t have much money. You said you’d pay me back! But you didn’t! And you still won’t. Do you even remember how much it was?”
“Please talk softly,” he begged. Heads had turned to look at us. There weren’t really any other conversations happening on the bus.
I looked at him in silence. He didn’t even remember how much I had loaned given him.
I finally asked, “You have a job now?”
“I found something, but it’s still hard.” Pause. “You are working, you have some money?”
“Yeah, things are getting better a little.” But I still could use 250 shekels!
“Listen, maybe I can pay you back in a few months, call me in a few months, okay?”
We checked to see if I still had his number, I did. The next stop was his. I never called him.
So. Was I a sucker? Had I crossed over that elusive line between compassion and frier-hood? Maybe, maybe not. I decided to let it all go with that guy, and the others, whatever, it was tzedakah, not a loan, and G!D knows I don’t give enough tzedakah, it will all come back in some way and I believe that it really is better, in the long run, to keep our hearts open.
But no more loans to random dudes, even after I do get out of this minus.