Dear Bintel Brief,
Hardly a day goes by without homeless and less fortunate people begging on the transit system. They ask for money and sometimes food, and I feel sorry for them, but never give to them, or engage at all. I value tzedakah, I volunteer and give to numerous charities, but I’m conflicted about giving to these people because frankly, I’m unsure what they’re going do with my hard-earned money.
Does this make me a bad person? Or a bad Jew?
STEVE ALMOND RESPONDS:
Dear Closed Pockets, I’m not sure that makes you a bad person, or a bad Jew. It just makes you guilt-ridden. Which isn’t all bad. We here in the affluent West, particularly in the affluent portions of affluent America, probably should feel some guilt, given all that we have, as measured against how little many people on earth have. And seeing someone with less than you on the street is a reminder of our privilege. So it’s natural to feel guilty. It just means you’re morally awake. The only other option, I’d think, would be to become one of those Republicans who’s convinced yourself that you somehow “earned” your American citizenship, and that you didn’t get any help from the government and somehow earned every bit of what you have, and screw anyone for making you feel bad about that. It’s the myth of self-reliance as a convenient defense for being selfish and greedy. So you don’t want to be selfish or greedy. That’s GOOD. My advice would be to spend your time and money and energy fighting to change the larger systems that lead to economic inequality. Remember that this country once launched a war on poverty. Imagine that. Before we launched our war on drugs and terrorists, we actually sought to solve the crisis of people without enough money to live safely. Sort of like the folks you see everyday. You’re quite right that you have no idea how beggars will use the money you might give them. Maybe for food or medicine. Maybe for booze or drugs. No way to know. But you do know that the good works you do will have a positive effect, so try not to beat yourself up for not giving money to every beggar you see on the street. But do use the moral twinge you feel to remind yourself that part of being a good Jew — or a good person, frankly — is to recognize that the moral suffering of others is partly your responsibility. And that you should use your time/money/energy to alleviate that suffering, in as much as you can. It sounds like you do that already, perhaps more than some of the folks reading this column. So in my book, you’re an example. Would that more of us — like me, for instance — acted and felt more like you.
Steve Almond is the author the story collections “My Life in Heavy Metal” and “The Evil B.B. Chow,” the novel “Which Brings Me to You” (with Julianna Baggott), and the non-fiction books “Candyfreak” and “(Not That You Asked).” His most recent book, “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life,” came out in Spring 2010. He is also, crazily, self-publishing books. “This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey,” is composed of 30 very brief stories, and 30 very brief essays on the psychology and practice of writing. “Letters from People Who Hate Me” is just plum crazy. Both are available at readings. In 2011, Lookout Press will publish his story collection, “God Bless America.”
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