Why I Didn’t Help the Old Man Cross the Street

There are certain episodes in my life that fill me with shame. Not because I did something very wrong—I was not creative or rebellious enough to do anything really wrong—but because I didn’t do anything right.

Usually it was a matter of sheer ignorance on my part, like when a friend told me she was cutting herself, and I didn’t know what that meant. And sometimes it was confusion over what’s right, because what I was taught didn’t mesh with what I knew.

The old Russian man was one of the latter cases.

There was a large ex-USSR community near my school. It was a mostly monolingual community of aging men and women with varying scars—some more visible than others—and no apparent means of self-sufficiency.

Some of the old men would congregate at the checkers tables on Ocean Parkway to play chess or backgammon with their long and otherwise empty days. Their games would be wrapping up around 5:15pm, when I passed by on my way home from school.

One of these players was a bald old gentleman who wore his threadbare military uniform, probably because he couldn’t afford anything else. He walked with a slow, limping gait, and his hands shook. At least once a week I’d run into him while crossing Ocean Parkway, and he’d request in pantomime that I help him cross the street.  Ocean Parkway is a busy, seven-lane artery with a carefully choreographed light-sequence, and it could be intimidating to someone who couldn’t confidently get across in time.

I had no problem helping a lonely old man cross the street. What bothered me was that he would take my arm for support when I did so.

It wasn’t that I minded touching a stranger. But I knew that I wasn’t supposed to touch men, for reasons that had never been very well defined.  We didn’t do hilchos negiya til 10th or 11th grade, and the basic summary was: don’t touch boys over seven years old, ever, no exceptions.

So here was a man who was touching me, and that was obviously wrong. But I was helping him cross the street. And that was obviously right.

At least once a week I’d be faced with this conundrum. It only got worse when, emboldened by my agreeableness, the man asked me to walk him all the way to his apartment. The apartment, ironically, was practically back at school. I’d imagine a teacher or fellow student spotting me walking with a gentleman on my arm and feel a panicked pre-emptive shame. What was I doing?!

My parents didn’t have a lot of input on this. As long as I didn’t go into his apartment, they didn’t see what the big deal was. But they also didn’t think I should be doing anything that made me uncomfortable. I didn’t really explain that my problem was about shomer negiya. Like many families, we talked often, but didn’t always communicate.

In the end, my fear of religion overrode my instinctive human decency. I started crossing to the opposite corner when I saw him patiently waiting on the median. I just couldn’t handle the long avenue block of sin that would inevitably result.

Eventually, I stopped seeing him. Maybe he couldn’t do the walk any more. Maybe he died. I often wondered. Maybe he was stuck up in his second-floor apartment, lonely, living on stale bread, because he couldn’t find someone to help him down the street.

About a year and a half ago my grandmother died. For the last few years of her life, she hardly ever went out. She used to try to make it at least to shul, but Park Avenue always got her. It’s eight lanes, wide and intimidating. She was ashamed to ask people to help her cross, and it was only worse when they would refuse. Why would anyone refuse to help an old lady cross the street?! We all wondered and shook our heads.

But I know at least one reason why.

They were shomer.

Why I Didn’t Help the Old Man Cross the Street

10 thoughts on “Why I Didn’t Help the Old Man Cross the Street

  1. When I was in Israel, my grandmother came to visit, at 89 years old. She couldn’t travel alone, so I picked her up from Petach Tikva and brought her to Jerusalem to see all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren there, except biologically, they aren’t hers – she married my grandfather when my uncle was a boy after his mother had passed away. One of my cousins is a Charedi Rosh Yeshiva; his brother, a yungerman in R’ Efrati’s kollel, who had just had R’ Elyashiv serve as sandek at yet another child’s bris, was whose house we were having an 89th birthday party at. When she got out of the car to walk into my cousin’s apartment in Harnof, there were a few steps to navigate and I was about five feet away. My cousin immediately held my grandmother’s arm, walked her down, and helped her inside. I commented as he walked her that I could do it, she’s my grandmother; he looked at me, understood what I meant, and said “she’s an elderly lady and needs help walking, I’m allowed to do it.”



  2. anon says:

    Interesting, Ezzie, on two aspects:

    1 glad the yeshishe cousin didn’t follow the chossid shoteh path

    2 I never forgot how, in eighth grade, we learned in the kitzur sh”a that negiah with our biological aunts and grandmothers was assur. Well, my grandparents happened to be visiting at the time, and, choosing to follow the psak of my grandmother, an orthodox Rebbetzin, whose father, a Hungarian Rov and Pressburg musmach, was the latest in a direct line of 17-generations of rabbanim . . . I had no problem exchanging hugs and kisses, and realizing there’s a bit more to halacha than my yeshiva choose to teach.


  3. Bad4Shidduchim says:

    When I was about 9, I was introduced to a Big Rav, and I stuck out my hand to shake his, since that seemed to be the thing to do for a rabbi.

    He hemmed and hawed and said he didn’t usually shake hands with women, but he’d put on a glove as an exception for me.

    I have no idea if he was serious or trying to be funny, but I was very offended.


  4. Anonymous says:

    Curious as to who the “Big Rov” was. My reaction as a male considerably older than 9, is that you should have stood up tall and said, “don’t worry. My period ended 12 days ago!”


  5. Bad4Shidduchim says:

    By “big” I mean he was involved in many community things and was well respected by the people who respected him. This was honestly the first time I’d heard of this no-touching thing.


  6. NMF#7 says:

    This ended up at my Shabbos table for conversation, and both my charedi husband and I looked at each other and shrugged. Both of us couldn’t find any idea in halacha at all as to WHY someone wouldn’t help an elderly person of the other gender. Guess we’re not that frum.


  7. notpleated says:

    Funny you say that. On a FB discussion of this post, someone said that she DID help an old man cross the street, and was told that she shouldn’t have; there were plenty of young men around, and an old man who specifically asks a young lady for help must be yucky.


  8. Yaelle says:

    “Do Hilchos Negiyah”!?! We never learned those things- it was subconscious and something you don’t do. I didn’t know being shomer was an option (or even know what the word meant) until I began my MO life and their shomer status was considered an appropriate question to ask about. I thought it was a dumb question at first– “are you shomer”? That was like asking me, “do you sleep? Do you eat?”


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