Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


Zedakah Yesterday and Today


The process of giving in our Jewish world has taken a somersault in the last millennium.  In the European Stättel  people would share their piece of bread with the poor. They would know the recipient of their Zedakah and would feel good about having helped a poor “Landsmann”, a brother, a kin.  Some penniless men would take a yearly sojourn to Germany where they would travel on foot or otherwise from one Jewish home to another and would collect alms for Yeshivas, for their families and for sustenance for themselves.  They were housed and fed by their benefactors and there was a feeling of warmth, camaraderie, and love connected with the charity given.  There was a relationship, a feeling of kinship for the needy visitor, a warmth and a satisfaction with having had the company and the gratification of having done a “Mitzwah” for a fellow Jew. The giving was done from the “Lev Tov” (good heart) and both the giver and the recipient felt elevated by the experience. This form of charity ended shortly before Adolf Hitler came into power when Jews were considered hated pariahs and Polish Jews became the fodder for the Stürmer, Julius Streicher’s hate sheet.  This depicted our people as bearded, physically dirty, disgusting characatures with long crooked noses and the characteristics of Shylock, Shakespeare's conniving, greedy Jew.

Today giving in a personal way is a thing of the past.  People do not see the people who benefit from the charities to which they contribute.  They do not really know where their money goes, or whether it ever reaches the needy for whom it is allegedly designated.  They do, for the most part, contribute out of kindness, out of a need to share with those not as fortunate as they. There is also an element of coercion when an important colleague telephones and asks for a contribution for a cause. They do not get the gratification and the feeling of warmth and satisfaction that a face to face giving brings.  It is impersonal.  The “big givers” or large contributors enjoy seeing their names in print as people of generosity and folks to be recognized.

We will turn back time and look at some of the humorous situations that occurred in the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century when Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), the Jewish novelist, wrote his very delightful book King of the Schnorrers.  In it he describes how a young man came to visit a family who had a marriageable daughter.  The parents of the eligible maiden treated the bachelor with great respect and gave generously of themselves and their food.  The visitor ate an enormous amount and especially liked the drumsticks, a favorite part of the chicken.  “Shimme Herschel” (as we vaguely recall the name) leaves, eventually without marrying the eligible one.  Her parents are so angry that they curse the departed one, saying:  “Schimme Herschel soll erwürgen on die Pulkes” (should choke on the drumsticks).

So we see that life has changed during the past century, feelings about charity, how and why it is given have changed, but the need for charity will always be there as will the needy.  Giving has lost the personal touch and warmth that the giver experienced when he helped a fellow man realize he is not alone and that caring still exists!


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of  Youth Culture and the Generation Gap.

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