Let’s give credit where credit is due. American Jews happen to be an unusually inventive lot, especially when it comes to thinking up new forms of charitable giving. From the Kol Nidre appeal to UJA’s Super Sunday and from bingo nights at the local temple to online auctions, they have managed to redefine and contemporize the age-old practice of tsedakah.
Changes in the form, much less the format, of charitable giving have followed in short order. Take, for instance, the contemporary charity box. An increasingly popular gift item within American Jewish circles, part of the repertoire of acceptably Jewish presents for the bar mitzvah boy and the bat mitzvah girl, it comes in various shapes and sizes and materials — and with a handsome price tag to match. Some charity boxes resemble the fabled synagogues of Venice, Prague, Warsaw, and 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, the world headquarters of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, while others look just like miniaturized footballs, save for the four Hebrew letters that spell out the word tsedakah at the bottom. It is also not unusual to find charity boxes fashioned out of porcelain and ceramic, wood, silver, leather and enamel. In virtually every instance, the only label these contemporary tsedakah boxes carry attests to their manufacturer rather than to the name of a particular charity.
Earlier versions of the domestic charity box were far more humble, utilitarian and explicit about their intended beneficiaries. Commonly known as a pushke, from the Polish word for “can,” they were handmade, usually out of tin, and tended to come in just two shapes — cylindrical or rectangular. Less concerned with aesthetics than with practicality, they prominently bore the name of an organization, say that of the Jewish Home for the Aged and Infirm or, increasingly that of the Jewish National Fund whose blue and white box, an early 20th century invention, eventually came to be a household staple in Jewish homes across America, as well as in Europe.
And yet, these simple, sturdy objects should not blind us to their far-reaching implications. Put simply, the domestic charity box revolutionized both the exercise of and the context for tsedakah, particularly in the New World. In the Old, tsedakah boxes were far more of a communal venture than a private one, more of a synagogal phenomenon than a domestic institution. Maintained by the organized Jewish community or kehillah, they were stationed typically in the Jewish equivalent of the public square: outside the sanctuary or at the entrance to the cemetery. Some tsedakah boxes, especially those associated with the prestigious chevra kadisha or burial society, were lavish affairs. Often wrought out of silver, their surfaces often engraved with the names of the society’s officers or with swirling floral designs or with cameos that depicted a deathbed scene, these tankard-like receptacles with their graceful handles bore visual witness to the importance the
Jewish community placed on good deeds.
More often than not, the representative tsedakah box was much like the poor box commonly found in churches: a small, unadorned metal container with a slot for depositing a kopeck or a zloty or a penny. These days, a version of the old-fashioned receptacle can be seen at the Eldridge Street Synagogue on New York’s Lower East Side, where, fastened to the wall, six somewhat battered metal units sit side by side. Each one designates a different recipient, whose names — Yeshiva Etz Chaim, Reb Meir Baal Hanes, Hazkores Nesomes, Bedek Habayis — are handwritten in Hebrew letters on a wooden plaque that appears directly above the boxes, unifying the whole. The entire assemblage lines the vestibule to the beis medrash, where day in and day out, services were held during the week. You can’t miss it.
The domestic charity box stood all that on its head. For one thing, it expanded the range of opportunities for, as well as the meaning of, charitable giving. One no longer needed to attend synagogue, let alone a funeral, to give. All anyone had to do was to sit down at the kitchen table where the pushke was within easy reach and deposit a coin here and a coin there. More dramatically still, with the introduction of the JNF box in 1904, tsedakah was increasingly bound up with the national project of regeneration rather than with alms for the poor or the institutional needs of the local community. A “mighty instrument for good,” the modest blue and white JNF box transformed the giving of charity from an exercise in amelioration and remediation into a bold assertion of possibility — into an “eloquent symbol of our people’s faith in, and hope for, a better fortune in a peaceful world.”
For another thing, the homebound charity box enlarged the pool of givers, making room for women and children to fulfill this most fundamental of ritual commandments or mitzvot on a regular basis. A male prerogative no more, it became an agent of democracy, enabling women and children to lay claim to, and proudly bear that mantle of responsibility as well. As K’tonton, the pint-sized hero of one of the most popular of interwar American Jewish children’s books, “The Adventures of K’tonton,” would have it: “See my Palestine box — the blue one with the white star. I’m going to fill it to the very top. Clinkety, clink, away the pennies will go to Palestine!”
Meanwhile, “Blue-Box the Bold,” an illustrated children’s book published in Jerusalem during the early 1930s, took things a bit further, linking the eponymous charity box to a string of wild and wooly adventures in the land of Israel. Transforming itself into an armored car whose wheels were fashioned out of pennies, the protean and plucky object subsequently became a tractor to “start a Yishuv out of nought,” and then a “beacon bright” to guard the settlement from menacing jackals. Eventually, Blue-Box the Bold was joined by a “caravan” of boxes just like itself and working together, they successfully build a new home in Eretz Israel. The book ends on a rousing note:
Hullo! Hullo! Everywhere!
Hullo the children! Are you there?
Blue-Box Kibutz calling you!
Here are we, all thanks to you!
See our thriving settlement!
Raised by pennies you sent.
Carry on your noble task!
Help to build! ‘Tis all we ask!
When seen from this perspective, the giving of tsedakah was not just a time-honored gesture of support and a valued expression of the commonweal. It was the stuff of heroism.