Profound Generosity: The Chicken Lady of Jerusalem
“I was by the butcher and three young girls were standing in front of me. And each time that a girl came he disappeared into the room. It took him time to come up, and when he came up he handed a big bag of what I saw was bones, fat, and skin. And the girl took it and bowed and bowed ‘toda toda toda’ and she walked out. When it was my turn, I said ‘Mr. Hacker, how many dogs or cats does that family have? How many cats and dogs does that family have that you give them that trash, that junk?’ He said no Ms. Hammer they don’t have cats and they don’t have dogs. The father is very sick, dialysis. They are in trouble and they owe me a lot of money – I can’t give them anymore. So I save bones the fats, some people don’t like certain parts so I save it there and I give it to them free. I said to him Mr. ‘Hacker (what a great name for a butcher!), from today on you do not give them that trash, that junk. Throw it away for the cats and the dogs. You give them whatever they want, according to the size of the family. Keep a record and I, Clara Hammer, will pay for it.’ ‘Really? Really? Really?’ He kept touching his beard all the time when he said it. I said ‘Yes. Really, really, really’. As of today I have 150 families that come to Hacker. They get whatever they want. He marks it down, keeps a record and once a month. At the beginning of the month, every beginning of the month. I come in I get a bill and I pay him. And so far thank God almighty I pay my bills on time. Because people trust me and I trust him. People have what to eat and I don’t have to worry that I owe people money. Thank God.
And some they gave me a name Clara Hammer ‘the Chicken Lady’. And it’s written up in the newspapers! In Hebrew and in English. What does it mean all of a sudden? Well we had the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. We had the Holy Ark. Inside was whatever they had in those days. A jar, a bottle, a container of special oil. And the High Priest, before he went out to bless the people, used to come in and the other priest that were there used to take some of the oil and put it on his head three times and then put on his whatever they used to wear in the old days and it was called ‘good oil’ So we say ‘a good name is better than good oil’. And that’s why I have a good name. Clara Chaya Hammer. Thank God people trust me with thousands of dollars that I paid the butcher. I pay Hacker thousands of shekels. And I always pray to Hashem that as long as it is written I’m gonna live. I should be well and carry on this that helps a lot of people. And it helps me to feel good that I do something good. ‘There she goes, the Chicken Lady!’ Okay! I’m the Chicken Lady!”
During this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, I want to focus on feeding the hungry and “profound generosity.”
There is no better person to exemplify this lesson than Clara Hammer (may her memory be for a blessing). I met Clara Hammer in Jerusalem where she was affectionately known as “The Chicken Lady.” Her story is very simple. Clara once saw her butcher handing bags of bones and fat to young girls coming into the shop. Clara thought this family must have a lot of cats and dogs. But the butcher (Mr. Hacker!) told Clara that this family had a very sick father and they already owed him so much money. So he gave the bones and fat for free. Upon hearing this, Clara instructed the butcher to give the family whatever they wanted each week and she would pay. On the day I met and interviewed Clara Hammer in Jerusalem, she was providing food to 150 families each week. She often did not know the family names and who specifically she was helping. As time went on, she would collect money from others who wanted to support this effort too.
So there are many questions I feel confronted with when I think about Clara Hammer, especially during this time of the Covid-19 pandemic:
- In what way is charity an obligation?
- Are some forms of charity more noble or helpful than others?
- Why is feeding others so important?
- When and where must I feed others? If food becomes very scarce, am I obligated to feed others before my family and myself?
- What are the “bones and fat” we leave for others? What does profound generosity look like right here, right now?
In What Way Is Charity An Obligation?
Tending to the needs of those less fortunate is a big part of all religions. The closest word for charity in Hebrew is “Tzedakah” which actually means “Justice.” The lesson as explained by Richard Schwartz in “Issues in Jewish Ethics” in the Jewish Virtual Library is:
“In the Jewish tradition, tzedakah is not an act of condescension from one person to another who is in need. It is the fulfillment of a mitzvah, a commandment, to a fellow human being, who has equal status before God. Although Jewish tradition recognizes that the sharing of our resources is also an act of love – as the Torah states, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ (Lev.19:18), it emphasizes that this act of sharing is an act of justice. This is to teach us that people who are in need are entitled to our love and concern. They too are human beings created in the Divine image; they too have a place and a purpose within God’s creation. In the Jewish tradition, failure to give charity is equivalent to idolatry. This may be because a selfish person forgets the One Who made us all, and in becoming preoccupied with personal material needs makes himself or herself into an idol.”
Are some forms of charity more noble or helpful than others?
Judaism also provides principles for giving that can guide us in feeding others. This guidance comes from the famous rabbi/scholar, Maimonides who lived in Medieval Spain, who lists Eight Levels of Giving,(Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot matanot aniyim “Laws about Giving to Poor People”, Chapter 10:7–14). He says there are eight levels of giving charity where each one is greater than the other. Starting from the most righteous to the least righteous:
- Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need; forming a partnership with a person in need; giving a grant to a person in need; finding a job for a person in need, so long as that loan, grant, partnership, or job results in the person no longer living by relying upon others.
- Giving tzedakah anonymously to an unknown recipient via a person or public fund
- Giving tzedakah anonymously to a known recipient.
- Giving tzedakah publicly to an unknown recipient.
- Giving tzedakah before being asked.
- Giving adequately after being asked.
- Giving willingly, but inadequately.
- Giving “in sadness” (giving out of pity): It is thought that Maimonides was referring to giving because of the sad feelings one might have in seeing people in need (as opposed to giving because it is a religious obligation). Other translations say “Giving unwillingly.”
So if we apply this to feeding the hungry, the most righteous thing we can do is help someone feed themselves and their family ongoing through a job or a garden/farm or other ways of providing for themselves. What Clara Hammer did so nobly is considered Maimonides fourth rung which is giving willingly and publicly to unknown recipients before being asked. Clara Hammer achieved so much good in her life through the simple act of feeding others.
Why is feeding others so important?
Feeding the hungry is among the greatest “mitzvot” (commandments) and ways of giving tzedakah. One reason is that the concept of saving a life (“Pikuach Nefesh”) is considered the most holy act and supersedes all other commandments such as keeping kosher or keeping the Sabbath.
Feeding the hungry is so important that the commentaries to Psalms (Midrash Tehillim 118:17) says it is THE “ticket” to getting into heaven:
“When you are asked in the world to come, ‘What was your work?’ and you answer, ‘I fed the hungry,’ you will be told, ‘This is the gate of Adonai, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry.’”
Interestingly, the Jewish tradition also says that it is not our job to determine if the person presenting themselves is really hungry and without food:
“If a stranger comes and says, ‘I am hungry. Please give me food,’ we are not allowed to check to see if he is honest or not; we must immediately give him food.” (Mishnah Torah 6:6)
Looking outside of Judaism, even in the famous story of when Mahara-jii (Neem Karoli Baba) tells Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) to return to America from India, Ram Dass asks him how he can achieve enlightenment:
“I kept hoping to get esoteric teachings from Maharaji, but when I asked, ‘How can I become enlightened?’ He said things like, ‘Love everybody, serve everybody, and remember God, or ‘Feed people’.”
So what Ram Dass took away was that the path to enlightenment was “help people, feed people.”
I’ve come to understand there is nothing so holy as feeding others in need. We know there are food insecure families even in our back yard here in the developed world. This Covid-19 pandemic is already creating food shortages especially among those who did not go out to buy and hoard food. As I write this, supermarket shelves are bare. Will we be ready to feed others as our period of quarantine lengthens?
When And Where Must I Feed Others? If food becomes very scarce, am I obligated to feed others before my family and myself?
Judaism provides meaningful guidance on when and to whom we need to give. The website “My Jewish Learning” explains:
“…a community’s responsibility to its impoverished members is proportionate to the material standard of living enjoyed by them before their impoverishment. The formerly wealthy are entitled to a higher level of support than those accustomed to a modest income. That policy must, of course, be subject to guidelines and limitations for it to be practical and fair.
The legal requirement to give tzedakah encompasses even the poor who are themselves recipients of tzedakah—a clear indication that the institution’s function goes beyond the realm of economics to touch the individual soul and influence the values learned through Jewish practice.
Within the limits of a person’s ability to give, there are clear priorities for the allocation of the funds one has set aside for this purpose. One’s own livelihood takes precedence over all others; one is not obligated to give tzedakah unless one’s own livelihood is already assured. After that, the livelihood of one’s parents takes precedence, followed by that of one’s children and other relatives, and finally one’s immediate neighbors and other residents of one’s town.”
What are the “bones and fat” we leave for others? And what does profound generosity look like right here, right now?
Ultimately, I’ve come to see that feeding others is about learning to have a generous heart. There have been times in my life when I was selfish and worried about whether I would have enough. I see now that a scarcity mindset is inconsistent with spiritual growth. I love this quote from Sharon Salzberg from her book “Lovingkindness”:
“The Buddha said that no true spiritual life is possible without a generous heart. Generosity allies itself with an inner feeling of abundance—the feeling that we have enough to share.”
There are times in my life when I am bringing just the “bones and scraps of fat” to others, including those in need. During this time of Covid-19, I pray to be less stingy and less concerned and to be proactive to helping others. I started calling others to see if I can get groceries or pick up medicines. Or help with childcare. Or organize online meetings for groups of friends who would otherwise remain isolated. This story of Clara Hammer reminds me to step up to the need at hand, whatever that is. Christians are currently observing Lent where sacrifice models Jesus’ sacrifice. Jews will soon observe Passover where we are commanded to “let all who are hungry come and eat.” I am writing this reflection with the intention that search out others in need, especially those who are food insecure during this Covid-19 crisis and thereafter. I know that i will have plenty to share because of the great Christian saying: “Where God gives the vision, He gives the provision!”
A Final Word
I asked my dear friend, teacher, and Tzedekah worker, Arnie Draiman, who introduced me to Clara Hammer, what he felt were the most important lessons from her life. Arnie shared two profound lessons:
- “Giving Tzedakah is the antidote to the evil and unsurety in the world. It is an act that connects you intimately with others. It is holy and should be revered as such.”
- “That anyone, at any age, can do good, can create something that wasn’t there yesterday. Doing Good has no age limits, upper or lower!”
Let us all be like Clara Hammer during this profoundly difficult time. Let us feed people and be profoundly generous.
Note: Arnie Draiman is a Philanthropic Consultant helping people, philanthropists, and foundations from around the world give their Tzedakah money away wisely, efficiently, and effectively. He has worked in this field for more than 25 years. Arnie was my USY advisor in 1980-81 and became a dear friend in the years since then. He connects people who want to make a difference with their Tzedekah dollars to amazing people like Clara Hammer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.