In the Little Shtetl of Vaysechvoos: The Chief Schnorrer
Binkeleh-Bubkes was the chief schnorrer in the little shtetl of Vaysechvoos. Others would come and go, but most were seasonal schnorrers;” that is, they would schnor only when business was especially bad or if ill fortune blew more than the usual amount of tsuris their way. But Reb Binkel was a permanent schnorrer, and as much a fixture in the village market as the merchants’ stalls.
You see, schnorring was Reb Binkel’s profession, and it was almost a respectable profession at that. After all, without a beggar in Vaysechvoos, how would the righteous observe the commandment to give alms? But Binkeleh, even by a schnorrer’s standard, was especially destitute. He had absolutely nothing–bubkes! He loved to eat plain, stewed beans (also called bubkes), and everyone knew that beans were a poor man’s food. Thus, from the first day that Reb Binkel accepted a plate of bubkes instead of kopeks, he was known as “Reb Binkeleh-Bubkes.”
One Wednesday afternoon, Reb Binkel was standing in the marketplace collecting alms. Wednesday was the busiest day for buying and selling. Those who struck a good bargain were likely to be feeling generous. Those who had hoped to do better would console themselves with the thought that, thank God, things weren’t so bad that they couldn’t spare a little something for tzedakah.
Suddenly, Reb Binkel had a thought. “Why do we call charity ‘tzedakah’ which really means righteousness?” He could not see the sense of giving so lofty a name to so simple an act as schtupping a kopek or a slice of bread on the likes of Binkeleh-Bubkes! Yet, the rabbis praised charity above all the other commandments.
While Binkeleh-Bubkes pondered these things, Nahum the Bookseller walked by.
“Here’s a kopek for you, Reb Binkel,” he said, slipping the schnorrer a coin.
“Thank you,” Binkeleh said, and he smiled. “How does it go for you this week?”
Nahum shrugged. “How should it go?” He started to walk away, then seemed to think better of it. “It’s been a hard week, my friend.” Binkeleh nodded. Reb Nahum then proceeded to tell how his business was bad, his wife was nagging him, his son wasn’t doing well in cheder. Binkeleh stood and listened. Binkeleh always listened.
Reb Nahum finished his story and as he walked away, his face was not nearly as sullen as it had been before.
Binkeleh smiled and waved to Nahum, then turned to go about his business. He was surprised to find himself face-to-face with a stranger, a well-groomed man in a grey coat.
“Reb Binkel?” the man asked. “Reb Binkel, the son of Herschel?”
“That’s my name,” Binkeleh-Bubkes responded.
“I have a message to you from Warsaw. Your brother, Finkel, passed away last month, may he rest in peace, and,” the man lowered his voice, “he left you a sizeable fortune.” The man took Binkeleh aside, explained the situation, and produced the proper documents for Reb Binkel to sign. Then he hurried off.
Binkeleh didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He hadn’t seen his brother in years. Finkel was a miser, so how much of a kinship could there be between a miser and a schnorrer? Finkel must have softened toward the end, in his head if not his heart, because before he departed, he left his entire fortune to Binkel!!
The news spread quickly throughout the village. “What will you do with all your wealth?” Reb Nahum asked.
Binkeleh shrugged his shoulders. “What does a poor schnorrer know about managing a fortune?” was his reply. “I have always wanted to see the world,” he mused. “I suppose I could travel.” And so he did. The next morning he picked up his walking stick (the thought that he could take a carriage never crossed his mind) and he was off.
Toward evening, Reb Binkel found himself in a shtetl much like Vaysechvoos. “It’s as good a place as any to spend the night,” he thought, and walked straight to the poorhouse (he’d never imagined he could stay at the inn). He staked out a place for himself on the floor, and was soon joined by a gaunt young man with coal-black hair. Binkeleh-Bubkes smiled and said, “It was certainly a fine day today.”
The man turned to him and said, “You’re new here. What brings you to the poorhouse?”
Reb Binkel explained that he had always stayed in the poorhouse. He was used to it.
“Not so with me, “the other said. “I had a business, a good business, too, but I was ruined. “As usual, Reb Binkel lent a sympathetic ear. He listened and nodded, and barely said a word.
Binkeleh-Bubkes lay awake that night, reflecting on the young man’s troubles. Suddenly it occurred to him that he was now in a position to help. Early the next morning, while the others still slept, Binkeleh slipped a sizeable sum of rubles into the gaunt man’s duffel bag and left a note which read, “Mazel tov with your new business.” Then he hurried off.
Binkeleh-Bubkes went to the next village, and the next, and everywhere he went, he found people in need. Binkel would listen to their sorrows, and before leaving, he’d secretly slip them a little something to start life anew. One town he went to was so poverty-stricken, they didn’t even have a poorhouse! Binkeleh donated a substantial sum so that they could build one.
After many months, Binkeleh had barely a quarter of his original fortune (although one fourth was still a substantial amount). He’d lost count of the people he’d helped, the poorhouses and sickhouses he’d helped build, and the synagogues he’d helped to repair.
“The world is very much like my own little shtetl,” he decided. “Some of the world is little villages, some is big cities, but everywhere, people are much the same.” He decided it was time for him to go home.
Meanwhile, in the little shtetl of Vaysechvoos, people were in a quandary. It wasn’t only that they missed Binkeleh-Bubkes’ sympathetic ear, but since he’d been gone, they had no one to give alms to. How could they observe the commandment to give to charity? The elders called a special meeting.
“The Almighty commands us to give to tzedakah,” said Reb Bialok the Stationmaster, “yet what can we do since our chief schnorrer inherited a fortune and left us! Our synagogue, thank God, is in good repair, our poorhouse is usually empty. almost all our widows are provided for, what shall we do?”
The men discussed the matter far into the night. They were without a solution, until Reb Nahum spoke.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “we’ve forgotten that Reb Binkel has not a drop of experience when it comes to finances. Within a few months, surely he will have spent the entire fortune. Then he’ll come back to us a schnorrer once more. I suggest that we save up our alms for Binkeleh-Bubkes when he returns.”
The elders accepted Reb Nahum’s proposal unanimously. They set up a “Reb Binkel return fund” immediately and donated to it generously.
One day, word went out that Reb Binkel was back! Someone had seen him come into the poorhouse during the night. Reb Bialok and Reb Nahum hurried to meet him the next morning. “We knew that you’d be in need when you came back,” they said, “so we collected tzedakah for you.”
Reb Binkel tried to explain that he didn’t need charity, that he was still reasonably well off, but they wouldn’t hear of it. “We expect to see you in the market place on Wednesday,” they called out as they walked away.
Binkeleh was bewildered at first, but it gradually occurred to him that they needed to give to charity, and he, Reb Binkeleh-Bubkes, was the only charity they knew! Binkeleh laughed at first, and then thought of the people that he’d met during his travels and wondered, “Is there anyone in Vaysechvoos who could use my help?” He hurried off to see the widow, Reva Esther.
As always, Reva Esther fixed Binkeleh a plate of bubkes. And, as always, she told him about all her aches and pains, and how she couldn’t afford to see a doctor. Before Binkeleh left, he slipped fifty rubles and a note into the bookshelf. All day long, he called on people–people who were truly in need of tzedakah, but would only admit it to a poor schnorrer like Binkeleh. When their backs were turned, Reb Binkeleh-Bubkes would slip some money into a coat pocket or beneath a cushion. The amount of each gift varied according to the need. But along with the money, Binkeleh always left a note.
By the end of the week, the villagers were baffled. People throughout Vaysechvoos had found a sum of money in their homes, and nobody knew from whence it had come! They were overjoyed, of course, but burning with curiosity. A town meeting was called and each recipient spoke, beginning with the Widow Reva.
“The only person in the world who knew I needed to see a doctor was Reb Binkel, and he couldn’t have…could he?” One after another, the villagers made mention that Binkeleh-Bubkes was the only one who knew of their need. How strange to think that the evidence pointed to the town schnorrer as the mysterious benefactor! Half the villagers insisted that it had to be Binkeleh, and the other half insisted that the poor schnorrer could not afford to do for himself, let alone others.
“He did!” insisted one side.
“He didn’t!” insisted the other side.
But then each recipient read the note they had found along with the money aloud, and each message was the same:
“Nobody is ever impoverished through the giving of charity.”
The elders were stunned; nobody knew quite what to say. Finally the rabbi spoke up:
“Our sages say there are eight rungs in charity,” he began. “The highest is when you help a man to help himself. From this day forward, Reb Binkel is no longer Binkeleh-Bubkes. He is Binkeleh-Boruch, for he is blessed who has taught us the meaning of tzedakah.”
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.