From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

The Power of a Blue Box

You can give without loving, but you can’t love without giving.


When I worked in a Jewish nursing home, I learned the true meaning of the Jewish National Fund Blue Box. A Blue Box is not just a pushke into which coins are put. It is the repository of the dreams, prayers and efforts of generations of Jews. I learned this one day at a storytelling activity at my nursing home.

One day, to stimulate memories among the participants in my group, I brought a tray of objects. I set out a pair of small candlesticks, a couple of seashells, a laceedged, monogrammed handkerchief, a Blue Box, and other odds and ends on the tray and passed it around. The residents would finger the objects, then pass the tray on. When their turn came, they’d share a personal anecdote that one of the objects had brought to mind.

That day, an aide had brought Clara to the group. Clara had suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side and somewhat aphasic: She understood language but had trouble finding the correct words when she wanted to speak.

Clara did not take her disabilities with grace. She was angry, hostile and disruptive. Storytelling was the most inappropriate activity of all, for it focused attention on her language disability. But there she was, and I was too busy with the rest of the group to wheel Clara back into the hall. I just hoped that Clara wouldn’t raise too much of a ruckus.

When the tray went around the room, Clara grabbed the Blue Box in her good hand and clasped it to her chest, refusing to relinquish it. Although no one else took an object off the tray, there were grumbles from the other participants. “Anyone can tell a story about any object— these or any others,” I said. The grumbles died down. Then the stories began. One woman told how the seashells reminded her of going to the beach every summer Sunday as a child. Another described the lacy handkerchief she carried when she eloped with a soldier on the eve of World War II. The next person was Clara, but the person beyond her, knowing Clara never participated in a group, cleared her throat. Clara waved the Blue Box and said, “Mine, mine.” Another old woman, a former social worker, said, “Clara wants to speak!” Clara nodded, and the room became silent.

Slowly, haltingly, Clara began her story. Often she said something that made no sense, and I would suggest words that fit better. Clara would shake her head until I hit the right word, then she’d nod. I then repeated the story up to that point, and Clara would continue. Other old ladies had told their memories in two or three sentences, but in spite of her laborious method of storytelling, Clara told her story in detail.

Her son was six, she said, when World War II was over and the news of the concentration camps became public. Clara, a young Boston housewife, was devastated, although all her family was already in America. Her heart ached for the survivors, crammed into Displaced Persons camps, and she wanted to help. After much thought, she made a plan. Every afternoon, when her son came home from school, she would take him by one hand with her Blue Box in the other hand, and she would collect money for Israel. Clara went door to door through the Jewish neighborhoods, and everyone gave. But she couldn’t just stop, so she started going through other neighborhoods. “Everyone gave,” she told the group. “The Irish and the Italians and the Greeks, everyone gave.

“They said, ‘I feel so bad for your people. Thank you for giving me a chance to help.’” Clara told the group that for two years, until the birth of her second child was imminent, she and her son went out almost every day to collect money for Israel, money to bring the survivors home to their new land.

When Clara finished, the room was silent. Her painfully told, detailed account had brought those days back clearly in everyone’s mind. They had also peeled back the curtain of time to show this woman when she had been vitally alive. Suddenly one old woman began to clap, and then applause filled the room. Clara nodded at the group, and the side of her mouth that could move curved into a smile. Slowly the room returned to normal, and the next person told her story.

That night, Clara had another stroke, one that left her completely unable to speak. But in my eyes and those of the other people who had been in that room that day, Clara never again looked like the mere wreck of a woman. Instead, we saw past the wreckage of age to the vibrant soul of a woman who cared.

Hanna Bandes Geshelin

More stories from our partners