One of my very favorite Jewish customs is when, just before lighting Shabbat candles on Friday eve, a few coins are placed in a tzedakah box (a pushke, in the old world). I love this custom because it’s such a tangible reminder (especially on Shabbat … when we attend to our own joy and restfulness) that we all share in taking responsibility for the needs of others, whether down the street or across the globe.
In the Dreskin home, Friday night tzedakah (from the Hebrew, meaning something akin to “doing the right thing”) is a big deal. Ellen and I have always tried to teach our kids the importance of looking out for others. Volunteering, charitable donations, and legislative lobbying all became outlets for that growing value in their lives. Jonah enjoyed them all – depositing cash into pushkes before Shabbat, driving to New York City to feed the homeless, flying to Mississippi to rebuild Katrina-ravaged homes, and riding a bus to Washington to help move forward legislation that could help millions.
In 1987, our friends, Susan and Jeffrey Sirkman, gave us our first tzedakah box. It was a lovely, contemporary riff on the traditional container — in this case, a family of lions perched atop the pushke, labeled with the Hebrew letters that spelled out tzedakah. For several years after that, Ellen and I sought out similar variations on that theme – some sort of beautiful rendering of the classic form which we could use for Sabbath pennies. That is, until Grandpa Jake (Ellen’s dad) presented his grandchildren with what he’d thought was “a bank.” What it quickly became was the very first in our family’s collection of eclectic tzedakah boxes. Grandpa Jake’s gift had been one of those black rectangular banks out of which a hand emerges and snatches your coin. The kids adored it and, for a long time after, Grandpa Jake’s “bank” became the preferred repository for our Friday evening tzedakah.
In the years that followed, I embarked upon a quest to find for my kids the most entertaining tzedakah boxes in the world. Jonah embraced the fun, quickly adopting as his favorites: the Borg (from Star Trek – it “assimilates” your quarter as it sucks in the Starship Enterprise), the Chef (who cooks your coin before moving it from frying pan to plate), Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine (which doesn’t do anything, but Jonah loved Scooby Doo), a football field where your tzedakah is deposited by kicking a field goal, and (perhaps his favorite of them all) Jonah and the Whale (one of those old-time cast-iron numbers where, in this case, the challenge is to shoot “Jonah” – your coin – into the mouth of the whale).
As far as I’m concerned, this practice reached its pinnacle just a few years ago when Jonah made me my own tzedakah box (my kids all know that my favorite birthday and Hanukkah gifts are the ones they make themselves – and Jonah consistently took that invitation to heart). Using a depleted cardboard dispenser of Ziploc freezer bags and a whole lot of duct tape (Jonah believed a person could rule the world with a roll of duct tape), he presented me with my most current “favorite pushke ever.” Designed (I guess) as some sort of “tzedakah monster,” it’s got two eyes on top and warns, DO NOT FEED. But when you open it, the words FEED ME appear (an homage perhaps to one of his favorite childhood musicals, “Little Shop of Horrors”). Needless to say, it won (and continues to win) my heart.
As the years advanced, our collection of tzedakah boxes has grown. We try to fill them throughout the year and, when Hanukkah arrives, choose one night on which, instead of receiving gifts, we carefully count our coins and bills, go shopping for books or toys or food or clothing, and make it a night of Hanukkah giving. We’ve dropped off gifts at the Blythedale Children’s Hospital, the Midnight Run, and Toys for Tots. We’ve sent donations to Save Darfur, Katrina Relief and the victims of the 2004 tsunami.
I’m not sure I really fully appreciated this while Jonah was alive (after all, who stops to appreciate much when you think it’ll be around forever), but he cared very deeply about the welfare of others. Thinking back, I saw this in how Jonah adored his mom (which, after all, is where the value of caring truly begins). I saw this in how he stepped forward to be part of temple social action projects for teens. I saw this in how he embraced being part of the PGT theatre community. And I saw this in how he engaged in our little Shabbat pushke project. Just a few days ago, I came across Jonah’s handwritten arithmetic which tracked the counting of our tzedakah coins and bills this past Hanukkah. When, later that evening, we went shopping for hats and gloves and scarves to be distributed during the temple’s Christmas Eve Midnight Run, Jonah was all over that store eagerly scooping up the items to be handed out. And when we went together into New York City to actually disburse help to the needy, I saw Jonah at his very best … doing what he could to bring a little warmth and goodness into the lives of society’s castaways.
This seems to have been what Jonah loved … showing up and being present when others were not at their best. Whether it was to feed a hungry homeless person or to welcome a nervous first-timer to a NFTY event, Jonah brought to life on most days what we’d been trying to model for our family on Sabbath eves. So it turns out, Jonah made tzedakah boxes many, many times in his nineteen years. Only one of them came from a Ziploc container. All of them came from his very beautiful, very loving heart.
How I wish that Jonah could have carried on this tradition with his own kids. How delightful would it have been to watch little Maccabees emulating their dad’s kindness? How incredible would it have been to see them grow up with caring hearts of their own that offered helping hands and warming smiles to so many they would have met? Maybe … and I cautiously place this thought here … maybe some of us who loved Jonah Maccabee will place a silly little “bank” somewhere in our own homes, and dedicate the collecting of those coins, and the using of them for some kind purpose, to the memory of Jonah Maccabee Dreskin. In an unexpected but quite tangible form, there would then be a whole lot of Maccabees running around this crazy world of ours, bringing helping hands and warming smiles to some of the places they’re needed most.