A Thermos for Irving

TO find Christmas these days, one almost has to go to where people don't claim to celebrate it. To Boro Park, for example, an orthodox Jewish enclave in Brooklyn. Herbie Fine lives here. He's a small man, with a sad face and gentle blue eyes. He wears a green baseball cap and sneakers, and his trousers ride high on his belly. Herbie's wife died some time ago, and he's lived alone here ever since. There are family pictures on a table in his living room, and a list of names and numbers by the telephone.

Herbie calls them ``boychiks,'' a Yiddish term of affection. They are all men in their 90s, whom Herbie tries to help. Herbie spends a lot of time helping people.

The man next door, for example. His wife died and Herbie helped him put drops in his eyes. Some in his building call him a ``dope,'' he says, working so much without pay. ``I would be a lousy doctor,'' he concedes. ``I wouldn't charge anybody nothing. I'd say, `Call me any time.'''

As a boy, Herbie helped in the family grocery store in Hammond, Ind. He went to work in a department store as soon as he was old enough, to send his younger brother through college. ``Until the day I got married I gave my father my pay envelope,'' he says. ``I believe it should be that way.''

Today, Herbie is going to see Irving Goldberg, the latest entry on the list. He met Irving through Elderplan, a health maintenance organization in Brooklyn that encourages members to look after one another. They've since become good friends. ``I have a friend better than a brudder,'' Irving says. ``He encourages me to live, for life. And of course God in heaven helps too.''

When Herbie arrives, Irving is sitting in his narrow kitchen, reading a Hebrew newspaper with a magnifying glass. He's a spry, elfin man, who wears thermal underwear under a white shirt and a yarmulke over limp strands of hair. Though he's alert, talking to him can be like shouting down a long tunnel.

Irving was born in Poland, in the 1890s, and came to the United States after World War I. ``It was quite a few days ago,'' he says with a twinkle. ``I didn't have a trade in my hands. I was studying to be a rabbi.'' So he worked a pushcart on Orchard Street, got a small grocery store, sent his sons to law school and medical school. Would we like to see the pictures?

Irving leads us into the living room - a table with pictures, like the one in Herbie's apartment. But he's forgotten: The bulbs in the chandelier had all blown out, and he couldn't get up on a chair to change them. Like many older people, Irving holds tightly to his shreds of self-reliance. He wouldn't ask for help. ``God gives me help,'' he says.

The light bulbs are the kind of daily problem that bedevils older people who live alone. Herbie tries to take such matters in hand. When Irving had a roach problem, for example, he fitted him out with roach motels. He provides little treats, such as an ice cream cone - Irving's first in 20 years. (Irving won't trust Herbie to do his shopping, however, for fear he'll slip something into the bag that isn't kosher.)

Herbie and Irving talk about Torah, talk about the old days. At 76, Herbie is old enough to remember, but young enough to help. It's hard to imagine a younger person, a social worker, achieving this kind of rapport. And Herbie understands the daily needs. The thermos for example.

Talmudic law prohibits the lighting of fires on the sabbath, which includes the lighting of stoves. Younger adherents finesse this by keeping a pot of water over a very low flame.

That's not a good idea for older folks like Irving, however, so he has gone without anything warm to drink. He bought a thermos a while back. But it wasn't a good one and he gave up.

Herbie has been aware of the problem for months. But how to get around Irving's pride? Finally, he resorted to a little fib. He bought the thermos for himself, to take to work, he said. But since he retired he has no use for it.

``I'll have to throw it out,'' he said. ``So please, do me a favor and use it.''

Today, Herbie has brought the thermos. It has a nice wide mouth, to make pouring easy for a shaky hand. ``For me?'' Irving asks, his voice cracking a bit. ``This is for me?'' His eyes start to water, but Herbie rises quickly to the task. ``No tears now,'' he says. ``I'm just a friend.''

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