I saw a hitchhiker this morning. It was a woman. She looked like she was in her mid-40s. Scraggly, blond hair, a tiny butterfly tattooed on her neck, a defeated look in her gray eyes.
My first instinct was to pick her up. In fact, I slowed down and pulled up so close that she slung her grungy backpack over her shoulder and started to move towards our car. The lines by her mouth rippled out into a tight lipped smile.
“Who is that, Mama?” Evi strained to get a better view.
“She’s smoking, Mom. Look!” Dalen kicked his feet against the back of my chair in jubilant indignation.
“You’re not going to pick her up, are you? She’s probably a serial killer or something.” That was Charlie. My pragmatist.
What had I done to my children to cause them to view every drifter as a predator? They were too spoiled, too suburban. Suddenly, it wasn’t just about giving a lost soul a ride, it was a life lesson to my kids. They had to understand that the world wasn’t all karate classes and organic yogurt. It was time for them to realize that it was our responsibility to use our many blessings to help those less fortunate. They needed understand the true meaning of tzedakah (charity), a lesson that was spoon fed to me before I could even talk.
I had a sudden urge to call my mom. I wasn’t sure why exactly. To ask her for advice? Forgiveness? Maybe just to hear her voice.
My mother was born en route to Israel from Libya. She and her family traveled across the desert, their underclothing stuffed with the few treasures they were able to salvage from their plundered home.
I grew up hearing stories about how my saba (the rabbi) and my savta (the angel) shared whatever small bits they had with their fellow travelers. About how when they finally arrived in Israel, they opened up their home to anyone, ANYONE who needed a place to rest. In every picture I’ve ever seen of my savta, her tiny hands are clenched in a fist. “Bits of bread,” my mom explained, “for the hungry birds and cats.”
Tzedakah was the air that my mother grew up in. It filled her heart so that there was no room for anything else, certainly not the fear of strangers that is so imbedded into our modern world.
She raised us in a tiny house that always had room for more. More Israeli cousins searching for a foothold in America, more friends of friends, passing through from Germany or New Zealand, or some tiny Pacific island you couldn’t find on a map, more drifters that would straggle in with their dirty kids and mangy dogs.
These visitors colored my childhood with crude jokes and outlandish stories. They brought us exotic treats and taught us magic tricks.
It wasn’t all happy memories. There was that time the homeless family stayed with us and their half-wild dog killed my darling puppy right in front of me. There was the soft spoken man with the lilting southern accent who we later discovered was wanted for killing his wife. There was the guy who showered us with gifts he’d paid for by robbing a bank. There were shadows and bits of time that I never fully understood, that I probably never will.
But, mostly there was laughter and adventure and this magical feeling that anything ANYTHING could happen.
My kids have a happy childhood. They go to nice schools and have nice friends and play in a nice neighborhood. Their world is neat and organized. They don’t ever have to worry about waking up the tatooed man sleeping on the kitchen floor, or if they’ll have to share their room with the little girl with dirty hair.
But, they also don’t know what it’s like to communicate with hand gestures and giggles, to hold their breath while they listen to stories of hoodwinking pirates and dancing with gypsies, to share their toys with kids who have never owned a single one of their own.
The woman was right by the side of the car now, her hand reaching out to grab the handle. My heart beat wildly. The kids chattered in the back seats, fear and excitement making their voices high pitched and whispery. I swallowed hard.
She grabbed at the door now, tugging hard while an exaggerated smile transformed her rough features into something even more threatening.
I couldn’t give in to my fear. I needed to do this. For the woman, for the kids, for my mom. I bit my lip hard and pressed the unlock button.
Suddenly Evi’s shrill voice burst from the back of the car like a fire alarm in the dead of the night, “I’m scared, Mama!”
That was all I needed to hear. I shook my head furiously and mouthed sorry while I slowly pulled away. The woman’s hands dropped to her side. Her smile lingered on her face for a few seconds, still so heartbreakingly hopeful.
I pushed down hard on the gas pedal and merged onto the street.
I’m sorry, Mom.