Who is the Chicken Lady?
(This is taken from an article I wrote when I first met Clara.)
We found the address Clara had given me--a small, older building. We rang the buzzer, and went up a short flight of stairs. We heard the door chain rattle, the lock turn, and the door creaked open. We peered in, and looked down. Clara, it turns out, really is a little, little old lady. A few short steps, and we were in the “International Headquarters” of Clara’s chicken fund (her tiny living/dining room). The papers were pushed aside, and the table set with juice and fruit. “Eat,” she urged. “It helps the economy.” We ate, and she showed us her system: a hand-written ledger book records all the donations coming in. Notes are made on file cards for each donor. (The files are kept in five cardboard boxes, stacked perilously on a chair.) A box with envelopes and paper is nearby, to send thank-yous to every contributor. The walls and the furniture are covered with pictures and awards—pictures of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren. (She is 92 years old, after all), and where there are no pictures, there are awards. (She’s been the Chicken Lady for 17 years, after all.) And everywhere, chicken mementos, including a dancing chicken that plays the chicken dance song. And thank you notes from people she helps, and pictures of people she helps, who were written up in the newspaper.
She told us the story—she was in the butcher shop, she saw the butcher give a young girl a bag of bones, and after the girl left, commented that it was nice of him to give her scraps for her pets. He told her that it wasn’t for her pets—the family was destitute, and she used the bones to make soup and cholent—otherwise, they’d have no meat. Horrified, Clara told the butcher to give her two kilos of chicken and a kilo of meat every week, and she would pay for it, but not to tell the girl who her benefactor was. Since Clara did not have a lot of money herself, she asked friends to help, and the Chicken Lady project was born. But needy people found out what she was doing, and the list grew. The week I was there, her butcher bill was over 5,000 shekels (over a thousand dollars), and she fed 184 families. We were amazed—one little, little old lady, a small table, some cardboard boxes and envelopes, a ledger book, and a telephone. No computer, no stationery, no secretaries, no email. And the largest butcher bill in Jerusalem, and over 700 people depending on her to raise money for food.
I asked to see a bill from the butcher, so she went into another room and pulled out a stack of them. They were very simple: “Meat: 6,240 shekels.” Attached to it was a computer list, that the butcher’s daughter kept: Name, address, phone, number of family members, and what they received. Each got according to the size of the family. Clara keeps a separate list for orphans, and another for people in need who do not live in Jerusalem—she sends them checks once a month. Each week she calls the butcher, and tells him who to give meat to. I asked to keep one of the bills—she let me keep an old one. To me, it’s a holy document, like a Torah—it’s a record of a mitzvah, of the power of one, of what one person can do to make the world better. It’s the written testament of what Jews are commanded to do—to take care of each other in times of need.
We were in awe—a 92 year old woman, with no staff or office, feeding Sabbath meals to over 700 people a week (for most, the only meat they get in a week), at a cost of over $1,000, all of it collected in small donations, and each donation personally acknowledged. And it all started because of a chance encounter, and a lifetime of Torah learning that taught her to recognize the good in others (hakarat hatov), responsibility for one another (col yisrael aravrim zeh le zeh), and the need to act when one is called.
Over the week I was in Israel, having a great time touring with the Miami Jewish Federation, meeting and visiting people, working alongside them, I constantly used examples of the life of the Chicken Lady to facilitate discussions about Tzedakah and communal responsibility. And the more I talked, the more people gave me dollars for her, so that by the end of the week, I had nearly a week’s worth of money for her.
Clara had promised to take me to the butcher shop where her clients pick up their meat, and having the money we collected made me even more excited about visiting. So before Shabbos, I collected two friends, and we went to see Clara. The butcher shop is around the corner, but since walking is difficult for Clara, we drove. I didn’t know what to expect, so I ended up driving right by the butcher shop. I was looking for a fancy store, with glass windows, and meat displayed in refrigerated cases. What I found was a metal door, swing wide open, with no sign. Inside, a row of meat freezers, creating a narrow aisle big enough for two or three people, with a counter at the end. This was the entire butcher shop! And behind the shp, a man who looked old enough to be her grandfather—the butcher himself! “Shalom aleichem” and “Aleichem shalom” were exchanged, and a round of “Good Shabbos” and “Shabbat shalom” added for good measure, and we took some photographs. It felt like being in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, for here, in this very spot, God’s work was being done, and Torah values being lived—it was awesome.
On the way back to the International Headquarters of the chicken fund (as I refer to her tiny apartment), Clara told us the story of the violin. Ten years ago, she read an article about a Russian family that was having a very rough time in Israel. The newspaper had a photograph of the mother peering into an empty refrigerator. So Clara went to visit to see how she could help. While she was there, the six year old daughter brought out a tiny violin, and played a song for her. Clara knew that the violin was just a toy, and that there was obviously no money for a real one. That night she slept fitfully, dreaming of violins. When a friend called in the morning, and asked why she was so tired, she told her the story. “I have a violin in the basement which we haven’t used for years,” exclaimed the friend. “Do you want it?” So several days and seven hundred shekels (about $200 then) later, the violin was repaired and given to Clara for that little girl. This year, ten years later, she won a scholarship to study with an orchestra in Vienna.
Another story—I jokingly asked what happened to all the feathers from the chickens. Clara told me her housekeeper’s theory: Two years ago, Clara was attacked in the street. Her handbag was taken, and she was knocked down, her hand lacerated, and a finger broken. The doctors looked all over for broken bones, but could find nothing. They were amazed, because the fall was a violent one. But Clara’s cleaning lady knew what had happened—when God saw what was going on, he summoned the angels to gather all the feathers from the chickens she had provided, and they made them into a giant pillow to cushion her fall.