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By Libby Lazewnik
That's why I said yes. It's not easy for me to admit that, but I've decided to be excruciatingly honest. After all, it was because I was less than honest with myself that all the trouble happened in the first place.
Shmulie and I were both new bar mitzvah boys, in the eighth grade at school, and there were plenty of things I'd rather have been doing together with him on Tuesday evenings than sitting with a bunch of old men who didn't know who I was and hardly seemed to care. But, as I say, Shmulie was doing it, and I was used to doing things with Shmulie. So I started visiting the old-age home and found that there was a bonus that came along with the job. The bonus was a lot of attention, and even admiration, from the people who knew about it.
Everyone from my principal to my next-door neighbor thought I was a pretty good kid for spending some of my precious free time that way. So, if I started casually dropping the word to even more people about what I did on Tuesday evenings, can you blame me?
The head of the volunteer office, a Mrs. Grossman, supervised Shmulie and me and the six other volunteers who came by during the course of the week. After the first few times, she pretty much left us alone. We soon fell into a routine. Shmulie liked to act the roving ambassador, offering a few words and a smile to every resident in the place. I, on the other hand, found myself becoming friendly with two or three of the men in particular, and spent most of my time visiting with them.
My best customer was Mr. Weinstein, who had taken a real liking to me and would holler, the minute he saw my face at the door: "SO, IT'S TUESDAY AGAIN! COME IN, YOUNG MAN! COME IN AND TAKE A SEAT!" So I would, and he would regale me with stories of his younger days, which I have to admit were pretty interesting.
Mr. Weinstein and one or two others made a big fuss over me, making me feel pretty special for coming to see them.
All in all, I actually came to look forward to Tuesday nights.
On the day that Mrs. Grossman told us her exciting news, In school we learned about the concept of matan b'seser that is, giving charity secretly. There's something especially praiseworthy, about helping others anonymously.
That way, you're certainly doing the mitzvah for its own sake, and not for the sake of any reward or admiration you might receive. I was mulling over his words as Shmulie and I walked the five blocks from school to the old-age home.
Mrs. Grossman met us at the door, rosy-cheeked with excitement. "Guess what!" she said. "Guess who The Jewish Weekly will be featuring as their cover story next week?"
"Who?" Shmulie asked, taking off his coat.
"Us! Their planned cover story just fell through, so they've decided to write about the good work that's being done by volunteers in our town and they're going to make our Home, and our team of young volunteers, the story's centerpiece. They're coming down to interview you all in a little while. You boys will have your names in the paper! Won't that be exciting?"
Shmulie agreed that it was, and went on to ask Mrs. Grossman some questions. I was quiet, thinking. I was thinking what a pity it was that I'd already told everyone that I volunteered in the old-age home, because if I hadn't, the kindness could have fallen into the category of matan b'seser. And when the news story was printed, even more people just about everyone in our community read The Jewish Weekly would know what I did with my spare time on Tuesday evenings.
Abruptly, I came to a decision.
"Mrs. Grossman," I announced, "I don't want my name in the paper."
"What?" She was startled.
"I don't want my name in the paper. I want to stay anonymous."
"It's because of what the rabbi said today, isn't it?" Shmulie guessed.
"I don't really think this is what he meant, Gershy. He was talking about giving someone tzedakah, charity, in such a way that he doesn't know who gave it. This is different."
"I don't see why," I said stubbornly. "I'm here for the mitzvah, not for the glory. I want to keep a low profile about this kindness. That's not likely to happen if people see the name 'Gershon Blaxenheim' right on the front page of the newspaper."
Mrs. Grossman was gazing at me in open admiration. "Why, that's a very nice attitude, Gershy," she said warmly. "Such a modest boy! On top of being so giving...!"
I glowed under the praise. Shmulie gave me a quizzical look, but said nothing else to dissuade me except to murmur, just as the reporter and photographer came bursting into the office, "Maybe you should take a little time to think it through, that's all."
But there was no time to think it through. The people from the Weekly made it clear that they were in a hurry to finish the story as soon as possible. This was a real last-minute job; they went to press tomorrow, and the paper would be on the newsstands Thursday. Mrs. Grossman had invited the other school-age volunteers to join us for the interview this evening, and they came trooping in now, just behind the newspaper people.
"Good," Ben, the reporter said. "We can get started."
To save time, he said, he was going to interview us while he followed us around the Home. Jake, his photographer would snap pictures of us as we visited with the residents. As we trotted alongside them, out of the office and through the corridors, Ben began to ask us our names.
When he got to me, I said low enough so that the others couldn't hear "Schwartz. David Schwartz." Beside me, Shmulie gave a start. He threw me a look, but said nothing. "David Schwartz," the reporter repeated, jotting the name down in his little notebook. He turned to Shmulie. "And you are...?"
I was pleased with myself. So far, I'd managed to keep my true identity out of the limelight. As I listened to the other volunteers eagerly spell out their names for the newspapermen, I'll admit that I felt a bit smug. Good old Gershy, throwing away his one and only chance to have his name in print, because he wanted his intentions in doing this mitzvah to be pure. Mentally, I patted myself on the back for being such a great guy....
It wasn't until we neared the communal sitting room that I realized I had a problem. The photographer was checking his rolls of film and testing his flash. "We'll take a group shot of you volunteers after you've made the rounds," he said casually. I bit my lip. What was the use of keeping my name out of the newspaper, if my picture was going to appear there?
There was only one solution.
I would have to go.
"Shmulie," I hissed, holding him back as the others trooped into the communal room. "I'm going to slip away. I don't want my picture taken."
"Are you nuts?" he asked. "Mrs. Grossman is going to want to know where you are. Everyone's going to want to know where you are!"
"Tell them I had to go home. Apologize to the reporter for me." Over Shmulie's shoulder, I saw the photographer setting up his lights, under the interested gaze of about a dozen elderly men in slippers. He'd be ready to start shooting any minute now. "Gotta go, Shmulie. See you tomorrow!"
With that, I was off and running, back down the corridor and through a side exit that allowed me to avoid passing Mrs. Grossman's office.
Out on the street, I zipped up my jacket against the cool night air and waited for my breathing to return to normal. I'll admit, I felt a pang at the thought of missing out on all the excitement. Then I remembered Mrs. Grossman's compliment, and others that I knew would follow when if peo ple learned what a good guy I was.
The walk home was kind of pleasant after that.
The first hint of trouble came in a phone call, later that night.
It was Shmulie, calling to report.
"So how'd it go?" I asked, still bathed in my rosy glow of self-approval.
"Well, let's see. The interview part went okay. That reporter, Ben, asked us some questions, like which yeshivas we went to and why we'd decided to volunteer at the Home. The photographer took a bunch of pictures of us talking to the residents in the communal living room, then followed us around while we visited a few others who were in their own rooms."
"Did you see Mr. Weinstein?"
"Did we see Mr. Weinstein? I'll say we saw Mr. Weinstein! And heard him, too!"
I felt a rising apprehension. "What do you mean?"
"The minute he saw us, he started yelling, 'WHERE'S MY FRIEND GERSHY? IT'S TUESDAY NIGHT! WHERE'S GERSHY?"
"Uh-oh," I groaned.
"'Uh-oh' is right. The newspaper guys didn't know he was talking about you, of course, because you'd given them a different name. But Mr. Weinstein was sure upset. I think he felt let down."
With a pang, I said, "I'll make it up to him next week. Poor guy, he doesn't get many visitors..."
"No, he doesn't... Oh, by the way, Mrs. Grossman was not too pleased that you did a disappearing act. She told me she hoped the Jewish Weekly crew wouldn't think she ran things irresponsibly."
My heart sank. I'd been trying to do the right thing, but from the sound of things, it had led to all kinds of hurt feelings. I had a sudden vision of the drawing in kids' magazines, the one that asks, 'What's Wrong With This Picture?' Something was wrong here, but I couldn't put my finger on just what it was.... I went to sleep with images of poor Mr. Weinstein bobbing around front of me in the dark. It hadn't occurred to me to think about how he'd feel if I didn't show up tonight. Now, I wished it had.
Bright and early Thursday morning, The Jewish Weekly was on the newsstand of every Jewish bookstore and supermarket in town. I found an excuse to stop in at a store on my way home from yeshiva, to see how the article had turned out.
There was a picture of Mrs. Grossman, along with her staff of school-age volunteers. There were pictures of the residents chatting with the volunteers. Shmulie looked good, I thought. There was no sign of Mr. Weinstein.
Supper was nearly ready by the time I got home. I found my mother and my big sister, Suri, in the kitchen. Ma greeted me, then said, "How come you didn't tell me that your old-age Home was going to be the cover story of the Weekly?"
"Um, I didn't know until I got there, Tuesday night," I explained. "Afterwards, I guess it just slipped my mind."
"What I want to know," Suri said, "is why your name is not in the article or your picture. Weren't you there when the newspaper people came?"
"Just at first," I said. "I left soon after they came."
"Why?" Suri asked, staring.
I gave her a saintly smile. "Because I wanted to stay anonymous. You know matan b'seser and all that." I waited for admiration to fill her eyes, but they filled with a kind of bewilderment instead.
Ma said, "When I first saw the article, I was looking forward to clipping it out along with your picture and sending it to all our relatives and friends. Nothing like a bit of nachas...", pride.
She sighed. "Now, there's nothing to send."
"I'm sorry," I said lamely. "It just seemed like the right thing to do, at the time..."
The phone rang after supper. It was Bubby calling, for me.
She sounded a little hurt.
"I thought you told me that the reason you can't drop in to visit your Zaydie [grandfather] and me more often is because you volunteer at the old-age Home," she sniffed. "Well, I just read the article in the paper, and there was no mention of your name at all."
"But I do volunteer!" I said quickly. "I just wasn't in the article, that's all. I decided to leave before they put it together." I waited for her to ask me why I'd left.
She didn't ask. All I heard was another sniff, and, "Well. It seems to me, if you're so lackadaisical about your hours there, you could find a little more time to spend with your own grandparents..."
I apologized again, while inside I was wondering bleakly, 'What's Wrong With This Picutre?'
The next day, at school, our rabbi told Shmulie, in front of the whole class, "I saw the article about your volunteer work yesterday, Shmulie. What a kiddush Hashem! [sanctification of the Creator's name]"
"Thanks," Shmulie mumbled, turning red to the tips of his ears.
I waited for rabbi to remember that I was a volunteer, too.
But, apparently, that fact had slipped his mind.
My principal remembered, though. He made that clear to me when he ran across me in the hall, on the way to the school-yard at recess.
"So, Gershy. Decided to stop volunteering at the Home, have you?" he barked.
"No, I still go on Tuesday nights," I said, taken aback.
"Hmm. I just read an article about the volunteer work done there. Pictures, too. Your name wasn't there. Or," he added significantly, "the name of your yeshiva."
My face fell. "I wanted to remain anonymous," I explained. "So that my kindness would be more of a secret, you know?"
"Do you think you picked the right time to be anonymous?" he asked. "All the other boys mentioned the names of their schools three from one place, and three from another. For us, there was only Shmulie. Don't you think it would have reflected well on our school if you'd decided to tell them who you are?"
"Y-yes," I was forced to agree. "But I thought "
"Never mind," he said, as though suddenly tired of the whole subject. "No real harm was done... Though no real benefit was gained, either."
With those words, he walked away.
I hardly heard a word in any class that afternoon. My mind was full of one thing: the disappointment I'd apparently sown on all sides, with my decision to stay out of the limelight at the Home. Had that decision been a wrong one? And if so why?
It took me nearly until the last bell of the day to figure it out.
Maybe Shmulie had been right, and this wasn't exactly what rabbi had meant when he'd told us about matan b'seser. I'd already told the whole world that I was volunteering at the Home, and leaving myself out of the article like that had only reaped misunderstanding and distress. My mother wasn't happy. My Bubby wasn't happy. My principal wasn't happy. Most of all, Mr. Weinstein wasn't happy.
I remembered how smugly pleased with myself I'd been, as I slipped away from the other volunteers last Tuesday night. I'd felt like a real tzaddik, saint, better than any of the others, and more than ready to soak up the praise I was sure would flow my way for such a heroic act.
I'd stepped out of the spotlight in order to stand in the spotlight. If that's not mixed-up thinking, I don't know what is.
A line my father sometimes says came back to haunt me: "Don't be a saint at someone else's expense." I'd denied my parents some well-deserved nachas, hurt my grandmother's feelings, and let down my school.
But it was Mr. Weinstein's pain that haunted me, most of all. And so, even though it was a Thursday night and he wasn't expecting me, I took a detour on my way home from yeshiva that night and paid Mr. Weinstein a visit.
His face when he saw me went rigid with astonishment.
Then it lit up all over, every wrinkle curving upward in a great, big smile.
"HEY, GERSHY! IT ISN'T EVEN TUESDAY NIGHT! HOW COME YOU'RE HERE?"
Heads popped up along the corridor, as the nursing staff recognized me and smiled. Mrs. Grossman came hurrying out of her office to say hello.
So much for trying to be anonymous.
All at once, though, I didn't care. I was doing the right thing.
For once I was thinking, not of myself, but of the other fellow.
I'd planned to keep this visit to myself. But if it would make my parents happy to hear about it why, then, I'd just tell them. They would doubtless be curious about why I was so late coming home from school today. And I was going to be very late, because after I left the Home I was planning to drop in for a quick hello to my Bubby and Zaydie.
No one else had to know about it, though. I didn't need the praise to keep me going not anymore.
Knowing that I was doing the right thing, and that Hashem [the Creator] was proud of me, was going to provide enough fuel to last me for the rest of my life.
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© 2003, Yated Ne'eman