Tonight, I encountered a young homeless man in the tunnels of the Metro. He was sitting cross-legged on the ground, a newspaper in front of him on top of which sat what I immediately recognized as a small velvet tefillin bag and a Hebrew holy book. To his left, I noticed a small hand-drawn Israeli flag.
Having a religious background, I was curious as to why he placed these sacred items on the floor, as in Jewish tradition, this is considered a sign of disrespect. I made the usual pleasantries and tried to ask him, in my broken French.
“Excusez moi, monsieur, mais pourquoi est-ce que vous mettez ces choses la a la terre?”
“Vous êtes Israélienne? Vous êtes juive?”
(“Are you Israeli? Are you Jewish?”)
“Il n’y a pas des tefillin ici, juste les boîtes.”
(“There are no scrolls in there, just the boxes.”) ”
“Mais cette livre, c’est le Tanya. Moi, je ne suis pas traditionnelle, mais dans la tradition si on mette ces choses sur la terre, c’est pas une marque du respect.”
(“But this book is the Tanya [a book of hassidic philosophy]. I am not traditional, but according to tradition, placing such things on the ground is not a sign of respect.”)
“Parce qu’il y a le nom de Hashem?”
(“Because it contains the name of Hashem [God]?”)
“Moi, je suis homeless. J’habite ici. J’ai pas un maison. Vous comprenez?”
(“I am homeless. I live here. I don’t have a house. Do you understand?”)
“Je suis fier d’être juif, et je suis fâché. I am angry. Pas de personnes a m’aider! Ils prennent les photo avec le mobile! En Paris, si vous n’avez pas un maison, c’est comme ‘ptui!’ Et c’est dangereux d’être un juif ici.”
(“I am proud to be a Jew, and I am angry. No one has helped me! They take photos of me with their mobile! In Paris, if you have no home, it’s like you are ‘ptooi’ [he cocked his head to the left and made a spitting noise]. And it is dangerous to be a Jew here.”)
He drew his finger across his neck in a sign of mock decapitation.
“I think I am very brave,” he said, eyes blazing with fierce indignation and pride.
“I think you are too.”
“Je refuse de mourir anonyme au rue. Donc je mettes ces choses la. J’ai pas un maison, pas de SDF, j’ai pas du tout, et c’est pas juste!”
(“I refuse to die anonymous in the street. That’s why I place these things here. I have no home, no SDF [government assistance?] and it isn’t right!”)
“I think you are correct,” I answered quietly. “Vous avez de la raison. Je suis désolé pour vous.”
(What I meant to say is “I am so sorry.”)
He looked down and his fierce eyes teared up. I fumbled in my pocket to try and find a Euro coin or two. Naturally, I had spent my last couple of Euro coins on a bottle of water, and was left with a few 20, 10 and 5 cent coins. I reached into my bag and found a ten Euro bill and handed it to him.
“S’il vous plaît,” I said. “Please.”
He glanced down and shook his head.
He was crying now.
“S’il vous plaît, vous êtes juif, je suis juive, nous sommes des personnes. Comment dit-on en français? Si je peux vous aider, ça serait un honneur pour moi.”
(“Please. You’re a Jew, I’m a Jew, we’re both people [I meant to say 'human beings'.] How does one say this in French? If I can help you, it will be an honor for me.”)
I crouched down and held out the ten Euro note to him. He shook his head.
He looked at me unabashed and said “Juste un Euro, si vous avez.”
(“Only one Euro if you have it.”)
I reached into my pocket, pulled out all the change I had and held it out to him. He began to pick out the smallest coins. I shook my head and turned the contents of my palm into his hand.
“Merci beaucoup,” he said.
“Je m’appelle Shelly,” I said, and held out my hand to shake his.
“Je suis Yonah,” he answered, and shook my hand.
“Un nom spécial,” I said, remembering the existential angst of the biblical character.
“Yonah, ani me’akhelet lekha rak tov, I wish you only well, juste le meilleur.”
“Merci,” he said. “Shavua tov. A good week.”
As I walked towards my train line, I heard Yonah begin to sing “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold“) in his broken Hebrew. I climbed down the stairs towards ligne 4, and his voice carried over into the tunnel.
“Veshel nekhoshet veshel ohr,” and of copper and light, he sang in a loud, desperate cry. I boarded the train looking down at the ground. A lump formed in my throat.