The matter of lending money to others is so vital a practice that it garners direct mention as well as much attention in this last week’s Torah reading of Mishpatim. What started me really thinking about the Torah’s directive of lending money to our fellow Jews was a practice I was brought up with in my father’s home and that we in my family and so many others participated in. In fact, the gemach, the free-loan society, that we were involved in held its annual report to supporters, which doubled as a melaveh malkah, in our parents’ home for many years.
We had a large room where my brothers and I used to play. There was a basketball hoop, a ping-pong table, a piano, a couch, chairs, benches—you name it, it was down there. When the week of Parashas Mishpatim arrived, however, everything—except the piano—had to be moved so the “big room,” as we called it, could be transformed into a dining hall. Some years the room was set up with a series of about ten tables for ten, and sometimes it was set up in a U shape with the participants sitting around the tables.
Observing those tables being hurriedly set up after Shabbos was always a thrill for us kids. Of course there were a couple of food-service people who brought everything in, but they could always use a helping hand from a couple of children eager to help.
I reached out to my extended family about the origin of the Gemilas Chesed Shomrei Shabbos and learned that it was formed in New York in 1909. After my grandfather, Yochanan Gordon, arrived in the United States in 1932, circumstances unfolded in such a fashion that left him assuming the responsibility of directing the fund. He took charge of the gemach in 1944 after its base was relocated from the Lower East Side to Crown Heights. After my Zaide’s passing in 1969, my Uncle Shimon and Aunt Esther Goldman took over the administration of the fund. It is still functioning today, though not the way it once did.
My most outstanding memories of the practice are that as a young child and then a young adult in Crown Heights it was known that if you needed a short-term loan of a certain amount—I’m not sure how much, but back in those days it was probably about $5,000—that was the place to go. I always thought that this type of setup was a great comfort for people. That is, to go ahead and ask friendly, understanding people to assist you financially in a crunch, not to have to go to a bank, not to have to worry too much about the technicalities associated with creditworthiness, and then having the option to pay back on mostly easy and convenient terms.
Before we get to the little I ever knew about the finances of the gemach, what I was intimately involved with and had knowledge of was the melaveh malkah and the impact it had on our olfactory nerves all those years. When I think back, beyond the way in which the gemach helped countless people out of tight financial situations, what memory serves up, so to speak, is the menu of the melaveh malkah and the aroma that it left in our basement/dining room for weeks after the event. I could be wrong, but I think it was at these events that I acquired a taste for chopped herring. In addition to the herring at the start of the event, the main features later on in the evening were the cold cuts served with challah, cole slaw, potato salad, and so on.
Years later, after the generations began to slowly turn, after my Zaide passed away and my aunt and uncle took over the reins of the gemach, the venue switched to the old Spinka shul on Crown Street. And that is where it remained for a very long time, until a few years ago when circumstances dictated that the melaveh malkah simply could not be held anymore, and that was it.
I can’t say that I attended every melaveh malkah, but if I was in New York, my wife and I always made a determined effort to attend, because it was a piece of our tradition and upbringing. And so when the Saturday night of Parashas Mishpatim arrives, there is some kind of a void that makes itself known.
I’m told by family members in the know that my Zaide took over management of the gemach in the 1940s because he became aware that Jews who were new arrivals in the U.S. who went to work but who observed Shabbos were frequently fired from their jobs because they would not work on Saturday. Hence the name of the gemach was Gemilas Chesed Shomrei Shabbos.
A gemach loan is a way for people to tide themselves over during a short-term cash crunch. Recently I was thinking about and reading about what I believe is the opposite of a gemach loan, which is commonly referred to as a “payday loan,” for which lenders are permitted by law to charge an exorbitant amount of interest. A gemach loan, on the other hand, is a non-interest-bearing loan whose roots are in the biblical prohibition of charging interest to those you lend money to. I was discussing the state of the gemach the other day with my cousin Shmuli Goldman, son of Esther and Shimon, and I related to him how there were quite a few times when I utilized the services of the gemach and how much it helped and therefore meant to me.
My Aunt Esther passed away over Sukkos this past year and, as I wrote at the time, it certainly marked the end of an era. There was a time years ago when sometimes there was just too much month left at the end of the money, especially when it came to business obligations for a new business.
She and my uncle were so kind, generous, and gracious for all those years that I occasionally needed their assistance. There is a thing in our community that I’m not sure exists anywhere else in the world. I always referred to it as “Jewish credit,” that is this idea of paying an invoice or an obligation with postdated checks. Now, people in business who pay you that way usually mean well. It’s a nice and honest gesture, but at the end of the day of business, the reality is that you just do not have the money you need. You might have a check in your pocket or your drawer but, what can I say, at that moment it really has no value. I mean you can’t take nice gestures or good faith to the bank.
For me that is where this gemach that was run by my Zaide beginning in the 1940s had a somewhat dramatic impact on my business life. Later I was able to place some money in the gemach for a number of years so that those funds could be used to assist others. It is a beautifully effortless yet meaningful thing that one can do.
And that is why the Torah reading says, “Im kesef talveh.” The usual meaning of these words is “if you lend money . . . ,” but the commentaries explain that in this case it means “when you lend money.” That of course raises the question why say “if” instead of “when” if that’s what is intended? And it is explained that it does indeed mean that you are required to lend money to others if you are able to. The word “if” is used to indicate the Divine desire that you do so willingly, enthusiastically, and with pleasure.
So the more-than-100-year-old gemach is struggling to stay alive. We are talking amongst ourselves about how to keep it going. I don’t think any of us, especially those who benefited from its existence, want to be the ones to stand idly by as it goes down for the count. I really don’t want to see this gemach’s legacy being only the delicious baked potatoes, the kugels, and of course the chopped herring salad that I grew to enjoy so much. That shouldn’t be all that remains to remember it by.
We are working to bring it back to life in Aunt Esther’s memory. That would be a proper memorial. And who knows—maybe next year when we read Mishpatim, the herring salad will have already been ordered for the melaveh malkah. v
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