Thursday, December 3, 2009

What is Rich?

He was born in 1917, and his parents were poor even by the day's modest standards. Albert's mother was a Lithuanian immigrant, and his father, a textile salesman, was always in and out of work. They lived in a cramped apartment building on Topping Avenue in the Bronx. Food was scarce. Young Albert would come home from school each day praying not to see the family's furniture out in the street.

As the oldest of three--a sister and a brother followed him-- he spent from sunrise to sunset in a religious academy called a yeshiva. He had no bicycles or fancy toys. Sometimes his mother would buy bread from the two-day-old bin, spread jam on it, and feed it to him with hot tea. He recalled that as "the most heavenly meal of my childhood."

As the Great Depression widened, Albert had but two sets of clothes, one for the weekdays, one for the Sabbath. His shoes were old and cobbled, his socks were washed out nightly. On the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah-- the day, in his religion, that he became a man-- his father gave him a new suit. He wore it as proudly as any kid could wear anything.

A few weeks later, wearing that same suit, he and his father took a trolley car to a relative's house, a well-to-do attorney. His father carried a cake that his mother had baked.

At the house, a teenage cousin came running up, took one look at Albert, and burst out laughing. "Al, that's my old suit!"

Albert was mortified. For the rest of the visit, he sat red-faced in humiliation. On the trolley ride home, he fought tears as he glared at his father, who had traded the cake for a suitcase full of clothes, an exchange the son now understood as rich relatives giving to poor ones.

Finally, when they got home, he couldn't hold it any longer. "I don't understand," Albert burst out to his father.

"You're a religious man. Your cousin isn't. You pray every day. He doesn't. They have everything they want. And we have nothing!"

His father nodded, then answered in Yiddish, in a slight singsong voice.

God and the decision he renders is correct.
God doesn't punish anyone out of the blue.
God knows what he is doing.

That was the last they spoke of it.

And the last time Albert Lewis judged life by what he owned.

-- "Have a Little Faith" by Mitch Albom, pages 113-115

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