The Human Spirit: Two Chickens at a Time
March 17, 2005
The power of a story. Five women stood in line at the Hacker's butcher shop in Jerusalem, when the butcher hoisted a transparent plastic bag full of chicken fat and bones onto the counter and handed it to a teenage girl. She looked down at the saw-dust, thanked him and hurried out. Clara Hammer, a retired teacher from Los Angeles, was third in line. "How many cats does that family have for such a big bag of scraps?" she couldn't resist asking. The butcher flushed. "They don't have any pets," he said quietly. "There are seven children and the father is on dialysis. Friday night they make soup from what I save for them and Saturday they make cholent."
Clara froze, transported back 62 years to a dirty Rumanian prison. A guard was offering the starving little girl with blonde hair and a remarkable singing voice a piece of bread and a rare treat - a slim finger of chocolate - if she could learn a song in Rumanian after hearing it only three times. She was a Yiddish-speaking refugee from Russia but she succeeded and the prize was hers. The girl divided the precious reward into 11 equal pieces for the children in the cell. The girl was Clara and she remembers the feeling of hunger and the taste of that chocolate until today.
Customers behind her were getting impatient. Clara cleared her voice. "From now on, please include two chickens with the scraps. Cut one in quarters, the other in eighths - children like smaller pieces - and add a kilo of ground meat - they need variety. Put it on my weekly butcher bill."
TWENTY FIVE years later, when I arrive at her door in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood of Jerusalem, she praises my punctuality. "I'm still a schoolteacher at heart."
Cashews and almonds are set out alongside orange juice and a bottle of coke. Orange juice is good for you, and it helps the kibbutzim, she urges me to drink. Clara only buys Coke - no Pepsi - because of the years when Pepsi refused to market in Israel. Clara waves me toward a square cushioned chair that reminds me of the seat used for the honoree who holds a baby for ritual circumcisions. "It's Elijah's chair," she says, reading my thoughts. "I use if for guests, but if Elijah comes you'll have to get up."
The phone rings.
"Don't worry. I don't talk long." While she's talking I skim an old article about her and do the math. This spry, witty woman with coiffured wig and eye shadow is 95!
Incredibly, Clara was born in 1910, in the Ukraine. She grew up calling her parents by the Hebrew abba and ima for dad and mom, to the amusement of her Yiddish-speaking classmates. Before the infamous pogroms forced the family to flee to Romania, her father bought eggs from farmers, candled them, and sold them in Kiev. Clara's bitterest childhood memory is their arrest as they fled. Her father was restrained from rescuing her fallen mother. For eight months, Clara and her sister and brother languished in prison, until the Romanian Jewish community ransomed them and located her missing mother in a TB sanatorium.
A family photo from Haifa, where they moved in 1922, shows them happy, but Clara's mother was still ailing. Seeking better health care, they moved to Pittsburgh near relatives. As they left Zion, her father looked at the shoreline and pledged that his family would return.
Clara went to public and Hebrew school. At 17, attending a book talk about Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik in New York, Ephraim Hammer, a Hebrew teacher, watched her peruse the sale copies and bought her one, in the hope they could read it together. Soon married, the two Hebrew teachers moved to Los Angeles, where they taught and intermittently tried their hand at business.
"In those days men brought dates corsages and they didn't like a flower shop that closed on Saturdays," Clara says. Her hobby was singing, and she entertained at hospitals, particularly one for chronic lung disease, which claimed her mother's life at 34. In 1969 Clara and Ephraim finally fulfilled her father's pledge and sailed for Israel. Their cabin was so filled with flowers and Barton's candies from well-wishers that the captain mistook them for celebrities. They sailed alone, but over the years were joined by others in their family, now numbering over 60 members.
Clara still shops at Hacker's. On her desk is this week's check to cover her bill: NIS 4,946 - 134 families will pick up two chickens each week, thanks to donations and Clara's meticulous handwritten bookkeeping. She sends handwritten thank you notes to all contributors to her fund. One of her teenaged great-granddaughters helps her.
I'd heard about Clara long before I met her. A few months ago I met a paralyzed second grader whose parents couldn't afford the NIS 30 a day for a hospital TV for the week he would be confined to bed. I asked myself what Clara would do, and paid the bill.
The power of a story.
For Purim matanot l'evyonim, Clara's address is 4 Mishmar Hagvul Street 97752, Jerusalem.
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