32. The Schnorrer

By Peter Fraenkel

No, I was wrong. It is not a Yiddish word. Dictionaries list it as standard German and translate “Schnorrer” is as “scrounger” or “cadger”. But where I come from he is more: not one asks for ‘a penny for the guy’ nor even for a guinea. He is an artist at getting you to part with your money.

I remember when my uncle Friedrich had just had the good news that his wife had given birth to a boy child. He invited me to accompany him to see the new-born. In the hospital, in the passage, we were confronted by two men with skull-caps. They wished him “massel tov” and predicted the child would grow up to be a credit to his father and to all our tribe. On such a happy occasion, they continued, surely he would wish to make a donation to ….

I don’t remember for what fund they were collecting. Friedrich was irritated. “I haven’t even seen my son yet.” He pushed past them and I followed.

They realised they had overdone it. They stood back and apologised. “Do go and see your wife and the baby and give them our blessing. While you are with them we will say prayers for the health and happiness of the two. You’ll be sure to find us when you get back.”

When we got into the ward Friedrich rounded on the staff nurse. “Do you tip off these types whenever such a baby is born?” The nurse looked hurt. She would never dream of doing such a thing. “I never know how they sniff out these things. Have you advertised the birth?”

He had not.

“Well, if you want to avoid them when you leave, I’ll show you a back way out.”

What she had not taken into account was that there were two of the Schnorrers. As we were ushered out, there was one of them waiting.

Friedrich made a contribution.

When he grumbled about these pests my father told him his Schnorrer story: A family is about to sit down for dinner. An uninvited guest arrives. The host, remember his duty of hospitality, asks “Would you, perhaps, like to join us for dinner?”

“Oh, no,” says the visitor, “I’ve already dined at the Solomons.”

A pause. “Well, I might come and sit with you for a moment” Another pause. “And perhaps …. nibble a little.”

He sits down and fills his plate high, wolfs it down, fills it a second time and perhaps even a third. When the desert arrives he gestures as if to say “Is that all?”

In the end the host rounds on him: “Listen, my friend. Next time come and dine with us and …. nibble at the Solomons.”

Over the years the Schnorrer becomes more sophisticated. My father opened a letter – a letter written on very fine paper, perhaps hand-made paper. The letter-head was in Hebrew, elegantly-designed. My father struggled with the script. “Yerusholayim”, he read. “Jerusalem”. But the letter itself was in English – handwritten in a beautiful calligraphic style. It was not the sort of letter one could dump straight away.

“Dear Doctor Fraenkel” the letter said. “We have been impressed by the good work you have been doing in the community.”

He raised an eyebrow. He had ceased community work some years earlier after a dispute in the committee. And as for the doctorate – few now remembered that he had a doctorate. Back in Germany, before the Nazis got into power, he had indeed been a legal advisor in the income tax department. But now, here in Central Africa, it would have been hard to think of any training less likely to provide him with a living. He had had to recycle himself as a dry cleaner and laundryman. But this letter recalled his former status and perhaps flattered him a little: “We would be honoured if you felt able to take on the task which requires a man of your experience….”

In short, they wanted him to undertake the collection of funds for an organisation being set up in Israel to train the sons of rabbis. A suitable residence had been earmarked and tutors had been selected.

“Why the sons of rabbis?” asked my mother.

“They explain it here. These are the families that have preserved the faith from generation to generation. To lose such cadres….”

“Hm!” said my mother, who was more streetwise than my father. “Why not the sons of lawyers, and the daughters?”

They laughed. Both she and my father were the children of lawyers.

My father, however, said there was, perhaps, some truth in the historical role of rabbinical families. “But listen,” he said, “there is this rabbi from Johannesburg in town. He is due to speak in the community hall this evening. I was going to skip it. These meetings are a dead bore. But perhaps I’ll go and take the letter and get his opinion.”

The rabbi only glanced at it and expressed astonishment: “Haven’t you had that circular? It’s been sent to every community. But perhaps not to communities so far north. So now he’s trying up here? The man is a well-known Schnorrer. Sons of rabbis? He’s collecting for one son of a rabbi. Only one!”