My parents imbued me with strong values. One of them was – the importance of chessed – helping our fellow Jews. They firmly believed – charity begins at home and they lived what they taught. Our address was a center for the homeless and the unfortunate. My parents were always helping people in need – feeding the hungry, clothing the needy and offering a bed for the weary. Maybe it was my father's kind words and radiant smile. Perhaps also the delicious food my mother served – nourishment for the soul as well as the body. Her delicious chocolate cake was always accompanied by a cup of steaming home-made cocoa.
Most of our guests were forlorn war survivors – each with his story of loss and suffering. I was friends with them all – except one. I had a real aversion to Rabbi Levi , as he called himself. I was frightened by his piercing eyes and fierce expression. He was huge, unkempt, dressed in tatters and in urgent need of a good wash. He had no table manners; he used his fingers as silverware. He would walk in and simply sit at the table, waiting to be served. Unperturbed, my mother always greeted him warmly and treated him as an honored guest. When I protested, my mother told me gently, "Chessed – doing deeds of kindness – is providing a fellow Jews with what he needs, not with what you want to give!"
Rosh Chodesh (first day of the Jewish month) was always a special day in our house. My mother cooked my favorite dish, meat balls and spaghetti, and I would enjoy it down to the last drop. Although I was only ten years old at the time, I vividly remember how one Rosh Chodesh, I ran up the stairs after school. The delicious smell of lunch had wafted to the street. I removed the lid from the pot and said one word: "Yummy!"
Before I could begin to eat, there was a knock on the door and in walked Rabbi Levi! Without a word, he sat at the table and waited for his meal. My mother placed in front of him a bowl of steaming meatballs and spaghetti. He wolfed it down and asked for more. When that was finished he asked for another portion. My eyes were popping as I watched my lunch slide down his throat. After he finished the entire bowl, my mother served him a glass of tea which he swallowed hot with a huge slab of chocolate cake.
Finally, he stood up to leave. "Zank you," he said in his heavily accented English. "Zat vos veri gut." He shuffled his way to the door and at the entrance he turned round and said, "Mizzes, vot I ate – vos it meaty or milky?" I gasped. After he left, I burst into tears.
The cheese sandwich I ate that day for my Rosh Chodesh lunch was flavored with my salty tears, but it had a special yummy taste. It wasn’t meat balls and spaghetti, but it left me with something infinitely more precious – a lesson my mother taught me that remains to this very day.