Who Has the Magic Coin?

I’ve been meeting with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to collaborate on a book he’s calling “The December Project.” I see it as lessons from a rabbi in his later years that you can use for all your years.

On July 1, I’m about to leave Reb Zalman’s house and fly to New York for a magazine assignment. “Wait!” he says, “I want to give you something.” He leads me into his prayer room, which I call “the cave.” It’s small and dark, lit by 3 blinking orange lights that are always burning.

He keeps four charity boxes by the chair where he prays. Opening one, he hands me a coin minted in 2000 that’s worth one dollar and bears the image of a Native American woman with a papoose on her back.

“The Talmud says that emissaries of a mitzvah (good deed) are not harmed,” Reb Zalman says.

He tells me to keep the coin with me and exchange it for one of my own dollar bills. “When you get to a place where you’ll see someone who suffers, you’ll be my emissary and give them something.” He adds that he has a “double purpose. The coin I’m giving you has a female picture instead of a president. I want it to help you do excellent work.”

It felt good, carrying the coin with the Indian woman in my purse. It seemed to be giving off a secret magnetic charge. BUT…as I walked through the streets of New York, I didn’t see any homeless people as I always had before.

The purpose of my trip was to interview Joan Didion for Oprah magazine about her new memoir, Blue Nights, to be published in November. The book is provocative and gorgeously written; she’s been a mentor since the ‘70s and it’s always a treat to spend time with her.

The trip had two other highlights – walking the High Line for the first time and seeing the Alexander McQueen show at the Met. What surprised me was that I have friends who live in New York and have not done either.

Kathy Goodman, a buddy since childhood, took me to the High Line at sunset. For 30 years it was an abandoned elevated train track, an eyesore that the city wanted to demolish. Then a neighborhood group formed to turn it into an elevated park, a narrow promenade, and in 2009, the High Line opened and now runs from Gansevoort Street to 30th on the far West side. The design and landscaping are awesome — elegant and inviting. But what makes the walk spectacular are the views of the Hudson River and the city. Every few steps, different vistas open up and as the sky turns from blue to orange and mauve, you can look right, left, in front or behind and in any direction, the view takes your breath away.

The sunset also burnishes the faces of the people walking by, and every face seems joyful. We did not see a single person hurrying or brooding.

It was, literally, a peak experience, but I did not expect the same from the Alexander McQueen show. I’ve never been interested in high fashion, but many had told me this show was not about clothes but an extraordinary artist using haute couture as his canvas.

They were right. I had planned on staying an hour and couldn’t tear myself away after three. Every runway show McQueen created had a theme and told a story. In “It’s Only a Game,” the models stood on black and white squares like pieces on a chessboard and moved as their pieces allowed.

McQueen committed suicide in 2010, so this show is the best collection we’ll see of his work. It’s worth a trip to New York, if you’re turned on by startling creativity.

But what of Reb Zalman and the mitzvah coin? As my visit was coming to a close, I still had not come across anyone begging or suffering. But I had to give the dollar to someone!

When the doorman where I was staying scurried out in the rain to find me a cab, I gave him an extra dollar. I figured he doesn’t earn much and could use it. I tipped the taxi driver an extra dollar, but I still kept looking for street people. Where had they all gone? I treated a friend to breakfast because he has four children and is feeling the strain of sending them all to college.

I’m back in Colorado now; the coin was supposed to protect me and bring good work, both of which were accomplished. But the magic of Reb Zalmans’ coin was that it expanded my sensitivity and capacity to be generous. Reb Zalman keeps a stash of dollar bills in the ashtray of his car for when he passes people on the street holding signs asking for help.

“Do you always give?” I ask.

“Always, unless the light changes and I can’t stop. Even if the guy is going to buy beer,” he says, “why not still give?”

I must look puzzled, because he lowers his head and looks into my eyes. At age 13, he had to flee the Nazis with his family. They had no passports and carried sterling silverware to exchange for food, until the silver ran out. They were arrested and put in camps, where they had to survive on scraps of bread and water.

“Do you know,” he asks me, “what it feels like to have to go beg?”

I take a keen interest in your comments. Please tell me your thoughts.



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37 thoughts on “Who Has the Magic Coin?

  1. Dr. Vicki Paterno

    Is it really a mitzvah to give an alcoholic money to buy more alcohol? You may feel better about yourself (perhaps that is who gets the mitzvah?) but if you really want to help that person surely there is something else you can do? Like give the person food, or clothing, or perhaps just offer some of your time: that would actually not hasten the person's death.

  2. Anonymous

    Reb Zalman is an amazing person. All that I have heard and read about him, makes me wish I was able to meet or see him in person! I look forward to your book! I'm sure it will be a winner!

  3. Vicky

    Great blog, Sara. I interviewed Reb Zalman for a story once and he was truly inspiring. Thanks.

  4. Cheri

    You are an interesting woman and I never know what to expect as each blog arrives! From marijuana to magic coins! Those $1's can be multiplied to $5 throught Rotary Future Vision grants and that is what I have dedicated much of my life to since discovering Rotary at age 77

  5. Annie

    I'm a High Line maven already (“promenade” is the right word for it), but haven't been to the McQueen yet. I'm going tomorrow — in the nick of time, since it's closing shortly.

    The street people are all down here in the Village.

  6. Elise

    Great story, Sara.

    I received a coin from Reb Zalman 3 years ago – but didn't get the same instruction with it. Instead, he told me it would attract more to the nonprofit project on which I was working. So I've kept this with me ever since. Maybe we should track down the recipients and make a gold coin society!

  7. Katya

    hi sara — i love the story of the sacajawea coin (yes, that's who it is)

    you were supposed to keep the coin, obviously.

    you too could be homeless

    you too could be hungry

    you too need a pot of gold to remind you there's a rainbow nearby

    i too always keep dollar bills in the “coin drawer” in my 17 year old honda, so i
    can give to people holding signs on corners

    and i volunteer weekly at the homeless shelter to prep and serve meals

    and i wrote poems to celebrate beauty and antidote despair

    and i read oprah magazine (looking forward to didion's interview)

    so carry on, dear fellow writer/spirit

    p.s. my daughter alana who is in grad school in architecture (in florida), recently went to nyc to meet with a mentor and walked the high line — of course she loved it

  8. Ren Ruslan

    Awesome, Sara. You write like a goddess (if goddesses write) and always have good, menschlik things to say. Now there's an ongoing mitzvah for you. Thanks for sharing it with me and others. By that other Sara–Sara N. Dippity–I was at a men's Matrix retreat last weekend with Yotam Schachter, Reb Zalman's next-to-last of eleven. He also emailed me today–for a coffee date. God(dess) is good. Baruch ha-Shem! Ren Feldman

  9. Kathy

    Sara, I loved the blog. It occurs to me that when we enjoy the beauty in life it is enhanced if we practice generosity daily. It is as though both share the common root of connecting to the world around us in a meaningful way.

  10. Gail Storey

    I'm looking forward to the eventual publication of your book. I feel one can never err on the side of too much generosity. I spent three months talking with homeless people and providers of services to them, for a feature for Houston Metropolitan Magazine. What I learned was that it's more generous to give donations to those who help the homeless–Carriage House in Boulder is excellent. And when my heart breaks too much to walk by, I give the person food.

  11. Marcia

    When I started writing about life after 50, the first book I read was LEAP. I've been a fan ever since.

    If I could have no other wish, mine would be to write as beautifully as you do.

    Thanks for being an inspiration.


  12. Fiona Havlish

    I do not know Reb Zalman but I agree with him. Ever since 9/11 I keep money in my purse and in my car for those in need. I know it takes much to stand at the side of the road and beg for what many of us take for granted. They are my reminder to appreciate what I have and so I am grateful to them. I lovingly call it my 'homeless money'. I find it warms my heart to share.

  13. Terry

    I pass a homeless guy at the end of
    Broadway in the summer and have chatted with him at the light. After he told
    me he comes to Boulder every summer/Tuscon in winter to panhandle and
    another guy who comes here in the winter because the shelter is so good, I
    stopped pulling singles out of my glove box. I judged both guys seemingly
    capable of working and decided not to give. You made me think about my
    judgments and their relevance.

  14. Candace

    Your story about the rabbi was touching and charming. Some part of me must be Jewish because Exodus was my favorite book in childhood. How nice to work with someone like Joan Didion, I will look forward to reading your piece in O.

  15. Anonymous

    I do appreciate more conversation about
    issues like giving to homeless, and if I give I want the motivation
    to be a lot more than guilt!

  16. Diana Mcc.

    Wow! great Blog and wonderful enlightening comments! It is always so interesting to see others views on different subjects. I've felt both ways on the subject of giving to the homeless. On the one hand I don't want to contribute to addictions and yet I do want to help the needy. Solved my dilemma by donating to local charities.

  17. Marylou

    You were lucky to meet Reb Zalman. Such a kind and generous soul. I promise to keep dollar bills in my car to give out when the need arises. Loved the story.

  18. Barbra

    I have often pondered about the enabling aspect of giving money to street people.
    I carry other things to give them because we have many in LA.

    What do you think about the enabling aspect?

  19. rose

    I feel better about my habit of giving anyone who asks money. It drives my daughters crazy but I have known times where I had very little and it does feel very bad to have to ask. I don't care what they spend their money who am I to judge?

  20. Beverly

    Honolulu is dealing with homeless people who have come here because they won't freeze. The Governor asked those groups feeding the homeless in Waikiki to stop enabling. Homeless were directed to go to shelters for food (a few miles) where they can also get services. The BIIIIIIG international APEC meeting is in Honolulu in a few weeks, People camping on sidewalks are highly visible. You can imagine the letters to the editor.
    Yes, I have had to beg when chronically ill. It is humiliating even when legitimate. Rather than become a dependent part of the welfare system — which can be a stigmatizing trap — I put goods in storage and backpacked the 3rd world until I inherited rights to a trust income. I had a wonderful time. When the Japanese stock market tanked, I knew I could afford to come back to the US.
    Given its labor history and Asian culture, Hawaii cares for its elders. I live in a well-cared-for high rise with a view, and pay a third of my income as rent. So do my neighbors — and we have pride as well as a place we can afford. But it was a long hard haul until I could qualify.. what with two unknown chronic diseases, for decades.
    It gets better. It really does. Bite the bullet as well as eating your peas.

  21. Robyn

    I really enjoyed your last email. I'm headed to NYC in the fall. I'll have to remember your sight-seeing tips.

    I also loved hearing Zelman's attitude towards giving. Especially to people begging on the street. There are so many people with signs in Boulder in the summer. I was arguing with a friend just the other day about why and why not to give. Zelman's perspective is refreshing and simple.

    Happy summer!

  22. Lucinda Shirley

    What a delicious story. It will satisfy me until I can get back to NYC.

    Your precious Rabbi has validated my giving to people on the street, as well. I've been chided for giving because the recipient of my paltry gift “might use it to buy wine.” If that's what their need is, so be it — not making light of addiction as I have loved ones who suffer. It's just that a gift is a gift. We aren't supposed to control how the receiver uses it, right? “Freely give.” Shine on, Sara!

  23. Rilinger

    I have to agree with several of the others here- I work in a addiction rehab facility and have volunteered at homeless shelters- Giving money to someone on the side of the road is often has very harmful effects- for example you give an addict money, they do drugs and possibly commit crimes. I am very against this and wish people who would like to help the hungry would donate to shelters or be active politically about the importance of shelters and addiction/mental illness programs.

  24. Peter Blau

    Many years ago I attended a high holiday service in which Rabbi Schacter officiated. This was a new age service. The Rabbi asked if anyone in the audience had a serious issue to resolve. A man went up to the rabbi who asked this person to open the Old Testament Bible. The Rabbi then read from this open page and it dealt with this mans' concern. There was a discussion and to my amazement this section of the Bible provided the historical wise answer to what was disturbing this man. An amazing spiritual experience.

    I believe that the Rabbi had a baby who was in the back of the room behind a white curtain. This baby must now be in his or her 20s.

  25. Gary

    Thanks for sending this to me. It was a fun read. I really like NYC, but I don’t get there as often as I’d like. The High Line looks like something not to be missed on my next trip. Have you been to Governor’s Island in the last few years? That’s also a fun jaunt.

  26. Anonymous

    Joan Didion did a hatchet job on 60's hippies in “Slouching towards Bethlehem”, picking the worst elements, for the most part. The lesson is if you have something going, don't tell the NY media about it.

    Your 60s book was better. I think some of it was made up, in that of the 3 people who fit the Oakland 7 and FSM arrestee, both, none seem to fit the other items. A lot changed to hide identities.

  27. Beverly

    Hi, Again = = I have been offline for a week (perfect storm of events. Nothing deadly, just a pile-up). So I returned to this site to read comments posted after mine.–And I don't know what to conclude about my being the only responder who has been the recipient of charity — having been sick, broke, and with a hostile family environment.

    I too have camped on beaches — but I was in a hut, next to a restaurant, on a resort island near Thailand. Ten bucks a day total.

    I really feel for the young homeless families I see camping here, with children who have to be gotten off to school every a.m. My daughter showed signs of future addiction at birth, so I can't condemn anyone who is unable to quit their habit. They die a hideous death – -so I am grateful for my daughter's retirement income. She won't be begging.

    I can't see “the homeless” as THEM. Everything is connected. You give to yourself when you give to “Them.” Anyone else who has received????THEY are all US.
    Aloha, from Bev

  28. bluekelpie

    Great read, Sara, Thanks for sharing that. It's Sacajawea on the gold one dollar coin. My mother gave me one when they first came out. I love it and it does feel like a good-luck piece. My mother also taught me that we're to give charity to all who ask because one out of ten will really need it and we can't know which one it is. So, we must give to everybody. In NYC where she grew up, every Friday night beggars would come to the door. My grandparents always took something from the Tsidicka (sp) box and gave each person a little. What a great adventure! I can't ait till you come back to CA. so I can meet you. On Thursday, I get to have a breakfast with Jane Fonda at Book Passage and will get her latest book! I hope you do a breakfast or lunch thing there! If not, I get to take you to lunch!!! Love, Joey

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