At 11:45 a.m. (April 10, 2008) as I was preparing to snag my beauty rest in the sun, I got a message that I could get a free lunch at a local shul that feeds the homeless. It seemed like a good deal at the time. I had no idea it was going to be a fleishig (meat) meal.
I put on some pants and charge up the street. There’s nothing like the word “free” to get me excited. Normally I don’t go to these things because I’m trying to climb up in the world, not down, and I don’t want to spend my good money buying lunch for some homeless person so he can free up his cash to buy crack.
The homeless line up outside the shul.
I stand off to the side and read the Jewish Journal.
Around 12:15 p.m., we file in.
The crowd’s hungry. I wonder if there will be enough food. Perhaps I’ll be called upon to multiply the loaves and fishes again and do that ol’ turn water into wine trick.
I’m getting sick of being a messianic figure for others’ amusement.
If you eat of this food from Jeff’s Gourmet, you’ll hunger again, but if you eat from the fruit of my teachings, you’ll live forever.
As usual, I select the seat farthest from everybody else. I spread out my newspaper and pull out a John Gray Mars & Venus & stress book for company.
The rabbi seems to know the name of every homeless person (about 50).
I expected they would be dirty and smelly but they’re not. Their manners are every bit the equal of hungry Orthodox Jews at kiddush Saturday morning.
I realize there are only a few checks and a bottle of lithium between me and them.
One homeless bloke asks the rabbi for Judaism’s view of UFOs.
“The Torah’s strangely silent about UFOs,” says the rabbi, “but Rabbi Norman Lamm of Yeshiva University wrote a whole essay about the topic…”
A high-powered attorney calls the lunch to order. He inquires why there are fewer people this month than last.
“That’s because government checks come out on the first,” people yell out.
“So it’s a bad idea to hold lunches during the first week of the month,” the rabbi asks.
“Not for us,” says one bloke who looks like he served time in the armed forces. “We don’t get checks.”
“People aren’t as eager for free lunches when they have cash in their pocket,” says another man.
I hear talk about “crack houses.”
The official item of discussion is Hillary Clinton. Should she withdraw from the campaign?
Several of the homeless want to talk about pastor Jeremiah Wright “spewing racial hatred.”
This crowd is as informed on current events as most Jews with mortgages.
A rabbi notes that several Jewish commentators on the issue said that they didn’t see a big problem with Jeremiah Wright. That they often don’t agree with what their rabbi preaches.
“I took offense,” says the rabbi. “If your religious leader is a racist, I don’t get it…”
Half the room says the country is ready to elect a woman or a black man as president.
I’m enjoying myself.
I have a bad history in this regard.
When some retarded kids came to my school in third grade, I made fun of them (behind their back).
When mentally ill people from the local asylum walked past me in the street, I tried to take advantage of their mental illness and bargain for the radios they carried (they never went for it).
I want to climb up the social ladder, not down.
I heard a sermon the other day telling the stories of many of the homeless I pass in the street. It made them more real to me. I want to ignore them. There’s one couple I’m always nice to because I always have to pass them on the way to and from mincha.
I don’t give money to the homeless. Almost all of them are either mentally ill or addicted to drugs and/or alcohol.
Now I’m listening to them talk and they’re changing to me. Next time I see one on the street, I’ll likely strike up a conversation.
There’s one old bloke with a ball I always talk to. It makes me feel like a mentch and then I can go back to raping and pillaging.
There’s little difference in the sophistication of today’s political discourse than that which goes on the cable TV talkfests such as Hardball.
The manners of the homeless are very bit the equal of the Jews I know with mortgages. The man opposite me asks my permission to dump stuff on my used plate.
The military-looking man wonders if the abuse John McCain suffered as a POW in Vietnam means he doesn’t have it all together upstairs.
He talks about how some North Vietnamese saved McCain’s life when his plane crashed while others “beat the s—, oh, sorry rabbi, beat him up…”
“You shouldn’t have picked a political topic,” says one man. “We’ve become a less tolerant country in the past 20 years.”
I understand that sentiment. As soon as I heard the topic was politics, I felt myself freezing up and worrying about how volatile people would get with their opinions.
It turns out it is no more volatile a crowd than Jews with mortgages.
A rabbi is asked to say a few words.
“Words I’ve always got,” he says.
There were more women than men among the homeless. Most of the people took at least as much pride in their appearance than I do. Yes, I definitely looked shaggier and more homeless than most of them.
When I pass homeless in the street these days, they are as likely to offer me money as to ask for it.