Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Poor Jews


Our enemies pretend that all Jews a rich and “that the Jews have all the money.” The truth is that there are numerous Jews who have no money and who are indeed poor. In Brooklyn there is a neighborhood in the vicinity of Rabbi Schneerson’s erstwhile headquarters where a good number of very poor Jews live and congregate. A considerable number of poor Jews live below the poverty line in New York City. Those in Brooklyn and others are therefore eligible to receive federal government funds. This money is distributed, funneling it through a community organization whose boards are elected from among the local residents. The poor Jews of Brooklyn live in a neighborhood which has a large number of Hispanics, who form the majority and therefore elect the board. Consequently almost all the money furnished by the federal government is allocated to Hispanics but hardly to Jews. The Hispanic led board of directors claims that the poor Jews of Brooklyn are supported by the rich Jews of Manhattan and that therefore they don’t need the money managed by the Hispanics.

At the same time, the wealthy Jews of Manhattan assume that the Brooklyn Jews are supported by federal government funds and are therefore unwilling to help their Jewish brethren. In addition to this problem is the unfortunate fact that considerable and excessive salaries are paid to executive directors and other bureaucrats, so that the money contributed by well-meaning citizens hardly reaches those most in need. It needs to be considered that each executive employs numerous assistants, also paid from funds collected from the contributors, so that those in need receive very little if anything at all.

Poverty has two dimensions. Not only does it designate lack of sufficient housing, clothing, and food, but it also involves humiliation and insult.

The best way of understanding what is meant by the demeaning manner in which the poor are treated is to display some real life experiences as suffered by poor Jews.

Here are some examples. We were living in Philadelphia under most difficult circumstances. Having neither relatives or friends, we had barely enough to eat and pay the rent. When I lost my job and my wife was still working at the Hillel Foundation, she was allowed to eat her dinner in the kosher dining room used by wealthy University of Pennsylvania students. Because we were so poor that we could hardly buy food, I visited my wife at dinner time and she shared her food with me, which cost the foundation nothing. Nevertheless, Rabbi Theodore Herzl Gordon told me to get out and not eat part of my wife’s food.

Because of our poverty, we were unable to buy tickets to attend a synagogue on Yom Kippur. We nevertheless walked up the stairs to the door of the West Side Jewish Center, which was a Philadelphia synagogue. Arriving at the door, we were prevented from entering because a large table had been placed across the entrance. Behind it sat behind it sat a large woman told us: "if you want to go into a theater you have to have a ticket and therefore you need a ticket to get in here.” We spent the Yom Kippur on a park bench.

Sometime later I was offered job as a statistician in Cleveland, Ohio. Shortly before that, we had made a down payment on a house in Philadelphia, since I had worked for large corporation as a statistician in that city. On being appointed to the job in Cleveland, we asked the Jewish real estate developer, a man named Rosen, to return our down payment, as we were so exceedingly poor. Rosen refused and sarcastically told us that losing our last cent was “Rebbe Gelt.”

Some years later I was appointed an assistant professor in Buffalo, New York. We rented an apartment which was poorly furnished to the extent that our income would allow. Since we knew no one in Buffalo, we called a Jewish professor whose name had been given us by someone who had at one time lived here. He and his wife came to see us and made some sarcastic remarks about our furniture.  

Years before all of this, the Adler family escaped from Germany and located in Weirton, West Virginia. Utterly without resources and the poorest of the poor, they were incessantly insulted and humiliated and demeaned. For example, a wealthy Jew invited three children to his house and told them that he would give them some candy. When they arrived, he said that they could take candy from the table. The children reached for more than one piece, whereupon the wealthy man told them they could have only one piece, not more, and then a song in Yiddish which in English translation means: “beautiful is the life of the Gypsies.  All they wanted to do is grab everything and give nothing.”

 Many more examples could be recited to show the effect on those who live on the margin of poverty and are subject of humiliation and disdain.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The German Jews in America (2014).

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