At five o’clock sharp the man hung up his white apron. Work was over. Schwartie, the counter man at the busy delicatessen, was leaving.
He worked six days a week, slicing corned beef, stabbing for pickles in barrels of brine and serving overstuffed sandwiches. Hours were long and the pay was small.
But the end of the workday was joyous because that was when he performed his mitzvot.
The deli owner handed Schwartie his meager daily pay. Always cheerful and unfazed by the small amount, he left.
After laboring all day, people then pursue their dreams. Some look for romance or reading. Others nosh on a warm, tender corned beef sandwich before going to sleep.
For Schwartie it was doing a good deed.
Passover was coming. While brushing his teeth he decided what his next mitzvah would be.
Leaving the deli, Schwartie ambled down the street to a Jewish bookstore. He bought a box of shmura matzah. The print on the cardboard box proclaimed: “Matzoh Shmura By Hand.”
Schwartie knew it to be the best. The wheat from harvest day was watched to prevent contact with water. Schwartie didn’t ask the price. It did not matter.
To this purchase Schwartie added bottles of kosher wine and grape juice. He read the labels slowly, checking to see that the grapes had been handled only by Orthodox Jewish workers until pasteurized and certified for Pesach. These items were placed in a brightly colored shopping bag.
Schwartie walked up the street in bliss. No more crumbled dollar bills were in his pockets. But did he care? For him there was no better mitzvah than bringing joy to someone else.
His short legs carried him to the biggest and tallest building on the block. Many a corned beef sandwich had entered its entrance to be digested by some of the building’s successful tenants.
The Italian marble lobby, elevators trimmed in brass and smartly uniformed security guards were to Schwartie marvelous wonders of the city, for it was where Jake Popper, the city’s foremost real estate developer, conducted his business. From overhearing Popper’s conversations at the delicatessen, Schwartie knew he had heart. He gave to the United Jewish Appeal without being asked. That takes heart, right?
Schwartie entered Popper’s penthouse suite. Through various doors young men and women passed in and out, stepping briskly, talking to each other and clutching thick file folders. Deeds to real estate properties, title insurance policies and certified checks held sway here.
“Can I speak to the boss?” Schwartie asked.
“Go in and wait,” the secretary coldly responded. Schwartie stepped into the inner office.
Behind a large mahogany desk sat the tall and mighty Popper, barking orders to underlings in a baritone voice. He was a man who wore gold monogrammed cuff links and hand-tailored suits and slicked back his black hair. Anyone who entered his lair was eyed suspiciously.
Schwartie waited in a corner, tightly gripping the shopping bag and watching Popper puffing on his cigar, shouting orders. An aide pointed to the clock on the wall and Popper hurried out.
As he left he waved a finger at Schwartie, ordering him to follow. In the elevator he asked what was on his mind, and Schwartie handed his idol the shopping bag, pointing out its special Passover contents. Beaming with joy, he wished Popper a happy Pesach.
Surprised, Popper suspiciously inspected the bag. Recognizing the contents, he grasped Schwartie’s hand and smiled. Popper thanked him as he rushed to his waiting limousine. Schwartie stood on the sidewalk watching the big black car speed away.
Schlepping to a nearby subway station Schwartie felt a warm glow inside — he had performed a mitzvah.
Popper’s limousine carried him to the Lower East Side for a look at a real estate parcel. Thinking about his bid for the property, Popper nervously fingered Schwartie’s gifts in the shopping bag.
But between 14th and Essex streets he had a melancholy memory of his childhood, of holding his father’s hand on the High Holidays on the way to shul. He remembered hurrying to keep up during an early September morning while stepping through dry leaves on the sidewalk.
The car pulled up in front of a dilapidated brick building. By mistake he was on the wrong block, and he quickly walked away. The block was lined with small synagogues, each representing a different shtetl in Russia. From the shadows in front of one building, a man lunged toward him. He had a gray beard and long narrow face and wore a shabby, torn topcoat. Popper quickly stepped back.
It was a rabbi desperate to find a 10th man for a yahrzeit minyan. Popper looked into the rabbi’s eyes. They looked similar to his grandfather’s eyes the day of Popper’s Bar Mitzvah so many years before.
Thinking of Schwartie’s joy, Popper nodded in agreement. The rabbi had found a willing participant. Stepping into the shul, Popper found himself in a sparsely furnished room with eight old men sitting on wooden benches. The minyan was quick and simple. Afterward, he hurried down the street. But before he left, he slipped the rabbi several crisp hundred dollar bills.
As the chauffeur opened his car door Popper realized there was something else to do. He rushed back to the shul. Handing the rabbi Schwartie’s shopping bag he wished the old man a happy Pesach. Looking in the bag, the rabbi beamed with joy.
Popper felt good, too. He had performed a mitzvah.
After picking up a garlic bialy at the corner bakery, the rabbi headed home with the colorful shopping bag in hand. About to enter his apartment building he saw Schwartie leaving the subway station across the street.
The rabbi knew the deli man well. He was always haggard from working long hours, but never said no to a minyan request. The rabbi rushed toward him. He felt a glow in his heart as he was about to become a very happy man.
Giving Schwartie the shopping bag would be his own little mitzvah, the rabbi thought.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.