Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The schnorrer

The present economic malaise has led me to remember an old story about a schnorrer. A schnorrer (the word, being transliterated from Yiddish, is usually spelled "sch," but pronounced with a soft "sh" sound, like "shoe") was a beggar in the world of Eastern European Jews. Unlike mendicants of other cultures, however, the schnorrer was not an abject figure. No, he had pride, even chutzpah.

In Judaism, tzedakah, charity, is one of the greatest mitzvot (blessings) that Jew can perform.
Because of this, the schnorrer and his more prosperous co-religionists in the ghettos and the shtetl (the villages of the Pale, the part of the Russian Empire where Jews were allowed to live legally) developed a symbiotic relationship. The schnorrer depended on the generosity of those who could afford to give, while he made it convenient for them to perform tzedakah, often by making regular calls.

The story is told of the schnorrer who makes his weekly visit to the home of a merchant. Knocking at the back door, he is handed a coin. "Five kopecks? Last week you gave me ten kopecks."

"I'm sorry," says the merchant. "I had a bad week"

"Nu? You had a bad week, I should suffer?"

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