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Speaking Hebrew at Penn Station

February 28, 2016 | by Sara Cohen

My surprising encounter with a beggar in New York City.

Walking through Penn Station today I saw a homeless man playing music. In the busy NYC train station this is not an unusual sight and Itry to remember that behind each man begging is a sad and tragic story, and I give what I can.

I was on my way after a long day at work and I stopped to give the beggar an uneaten sandwich that I had in my purse and a couple of granola bars that I didn’t end up eating for lunch.

As I handed the man the sandwich bag and bars from my knapsack he asked me, "Ma nishma [how are you]?" and started to speak to me in Hebrew, throwing out various sophisticated phrases. I was definitely not expecting that! I sat down and started talking to this stranger and asked him how someone so seemingly distant from anything remotely Jewish knew so much Hebrew.

His response blew me away.

"I’m not Jewish but all my friends are," he said confidently. "They always stop and give me food and flash a big smile when they pass by. Over the years they've been the people that consistently come back and make sure that I'm okay. You guys are my best friends you know."

He paused and took a deep breath.

"Lately I've been reading Hebrew for Dummies at the library so that all the Jews I meet will know how much I appreciate their friendship. You folks always care. Because you're my friends. And that's what friends do."

And with that, he wished me a "Layla tov [good night]" and picked up his guitar and continued to play.

I brushed off my skirt, wished him a good night and joined the hundreds of people rushing to the train.

As I sat on the train for my final leg home, I thought about the amazing experience that I had just had. Who knew what a difference we could be making in one person’s life by giving him a bag of pretzels, a spare sandwich and a smile? This man’s connection to Jews was so deep that he went out of his way to learn our language so he could properly thank us for our friendship.

My heart fluttered with an inner pride and I felt so proud to be part of such an amazing people. I feel very fortunate to be on the list of this fellow’s "Jewish friends" that he has made over the years as a homeless man.

During the mad rush in the dark winter nights, let’s keep in mind the opportunities that we have to spread a little bit of light. I suspect we really have no idea just how bright that light really is.


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