“Excuse me, can you help me find the A train to Howard Beach?”
Calling to me along Second Avenue in Manhattan is a portly, fifty-ish, mostly bald man with a thick accent — Israeli? He looks like anybody’s Uncle Shmuel.
“Sure,” I say, my 20 years in the city kicking in. Take the 6 Train from 23rd and switch at Nassau. Or walk way over to Eighth Avenue.” I know New York.
“My son —” the man volunteers, “He’s in the hospital there, but the pharmacy doesn’t accept shekels.” A fellow Yid, I know from my 10 years at Jewish summer camp in the Poconos that shekels are Israeli currency, and the hospital is probably NYU — one avenue over. I hate to imagine this guy helpless at the pharmacy window, facing a monolingual bureaucrat who never heard of shekels. The pharmacist, like most people, is probably indifferent to Israel and cares only about what it does wrong, not right.
“I go to friends in Howard Beach,” he wonders aloud, “Borrow cash and return. My flight to Israel is tonight. I make sure he has the medication before I leave.” You don’t have to be a native New Yorker to know trekking to Queens and back doesn’t make sense when you have a flight from JFK.
“Sir, I don’t think you’ll make it.”
The man looks disappointed. “Maybe you would help me? Help me transfer to dollars so the pharmacy accepts it.”
Help sounds nice. A Jew helping a Jew, and his son is sick. To save one life is to save the world, the Talmud says. We all know this. The man keeps talking as we walk. “I’m Avi,” he says warmly, extending his hand. We shook. “You been to Israel?”
“Yes, when I was 16. One of those tours,” I say, embarrassed at what Israelis must think of giant buses rolling through Jerusalem filled with suburban teens and credit cards. “I loved it. I might go back this summer.” This is true. My partner Bryan and I had been discussing it for my fortieth birthday.
“Ah,” he smiles. “That’s good. I can give you suggestions. You have family there?”
“Yes,” and I mention their town in the Galilee.
“Beautiful place. I know it.” Then Avi strays into politics and a recent espionage scandal. “People don’t understand the pressure we’re under,” he says, pointing to both of us. I nod instinctively. We are Jews. We are different.
“There!” he points, turning a corner to our destination — it is a Chase bank.
I am confused. “I thought we were going to the pharmacy?”
“Oh, no, this is better. Help me just get 1,400 shekels in American money and I can get the medication. I send you a check overnight.”
Wait, does he want me to loan him money? I try to ignore my internal alarm, which goes off when somebody is bullying me. In Beijing two years ago, three art students chatted me and my client up as we walked to the Forbidden City. They persuaded us to visit their student gallery — conveniently nearby. My client was so impressed she bought work from each one of them. The next day, I read in a local weekly about phony students scamming tourists using the exact script. I cringed not only at the paintings my client bought and the one I purchased to save face, but at the story we had bought. It was art, I suppose, just probably not theirs.
This seems different. Avi is in a foreign country. American medication is expensive and that is not his fault. But more importantly, I have the opportunity to do a mitzvah. My parents raised me to do this. My father was always giving money to people who needed it, and even to friends’ kids who maybe didn’t. He learned that from my grandfather who was the first in his family to go to college and became a big macher in his neighborhood in Newark.
And, there is this: Avi’s my tribe. He wouldn’t screw me. He is Israel.
On my iPhone, I calculate that 1,400 shekels is four hundred dollars. This is too much cash to pull out mid-month. I can do one hundred.
Avi shrugs, understanding. See, the pushy Israeli stereotype isn’t always true. “I can get him the basics for now. Thank you.” We walk inside the bank, and I withdraw one hundred bucks from the ATM. He offers to pay back the bank fee.
“Call me anytime,” he says, scrawling a phone number and address on a bank envelope. “Except Saturday — Shabbat.”
Outside, I hand him the wad of cash. “I hope your son feels better,” I say.
“It doesn’t look good, but thank you.”
I leave Avi, and with every block I walk, I feel worse and worse. I am an idiot. And he played unfair. I finger Avi’s scrap of paper in my pocket as if it were insurance it might work out.
A week goes by, and of course, there is no envelope from Israel. Any news headline about Israel gets my ire. I agree with the worst opinions in the press. I boycott my weekly visits to Ha’aretz, the left-leaning Israeli newspaper. I wonder if I still even want to visit in August. I blame Avi. Maybe I should call and pretend to ask after the son. Pretend I am the mensch I was taken to be. I search for his number, but am admittedly relieved when it doesn’t turn up. I must have accidentally tossed it. It happens.