Charity Saves from Death
The Jewish Tradition of Tsedakah as Exemplified in Pushkes, Charity Donation Boxes
—Elliot H. Gertel, Curator

There is a long-established Jewish tradition and מִצְוָה, mitsvah, commandment, of giving charity to help the needy. For צְדָקָה, tsedakah is not simply the Hebrew word for charity. The deeper and truer meaning of tsedakah is justice. To give charity to those in need—whether it be food, clothing, other necessities, or money—is not merely a good deed, it is the just thing, the righteous thing, to do, the right of the needy and the obligation of the donor. Although one is obliged to do so, one must give freely, openly, generously, and willingly.

The sage Maimonides defined eight levels of giving tsedakah. To donate anonymously where neither the benefactor nor the beneficiary are aware of one another—with neither the donor seeking recognition nor making the recipient feel shame—is giving tsedakah on a very high plane. Providing the poor with the means for a livelihood is the highest level of all, for when one makes it possible for a person to make a living, the beneficiary of such tsedakah is no longer in need of handouts from those better off. In addition, the recipient of such aid is able to “pay back” the benefactor by helping others in need by giving tsedakah to them.

The pushke exhibit first appeared at the Frankel Center in the summer of 2015, and later evolved into this online exhibit. Its many diverse charity boxes reflect the breadth of the Jewish Heritage Collection Dedicated to Mark and Dave Harris, and illustrate the value of giving in Jewish communities throughout the world.

Both exhibits were created through the initiatives of

  • Constance Harris, donor, Jewish Heritage Collection Dedicated to Mark and Dave Harris
  • Deborah Dash Moore, past Director, Frankel Center for Judaic Studies.

Special thanks to the following people for their guidance, expertise, and insight:

  • Elliot H. Gertel, Irving M. Hermelin Curator of Judaica, U-M Library
  • Yaffa Klugerman, Program Associate, Frankel Center for Judaic Studies
  • Peter A. Knoop, Research Computing Consultant, LSA Information Technology
  • Stephanie O’Malley, Model Preparation and Scanning, U-M Library
  • Sean Petty, Web Design and Development, U-M Library
  • Cheri Thompson, Chief Administrator, Frankel Center for Judaic Studies

The pushke exhibit was also made possible with the support and assistance of:

Jean & Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies

  • Stacy Eckert, Administrative Secretary
  • Kaydee Fry, Student Services/Fellows Coordinator
  • Sarah Garibova, Graduate Student
  • Jeffrey Veidlinger, Director

University of Michigan Library

  • Karmen Beecroft, Collection Services Specialist, Special Collections Library
  • Tom Bray, Converging Technologies Consultant
  • Anne Elias, Collection Services Specialist, Special Collections Library
  • Steffen Heise, Motion Capture and Visualization Hardware Specialist
  • Athena Jackson, Associate Director, Special Collections Library
  • Eric Maslowski, Director of Creative Applications and Co-Director of Digital Media Commons, U-M Library
  • Martha O’Hara Conway, Director, Special Collections Library
  • Arielle Sokol, Special Assistant, Special Collections Library

Constance Harris, better known as Connie, started to collect Jewish books, ephemera, artwork, and objects in the 1960s as she and her husband Theodore traveled. In her words, her collection “became an obsession”; in fact, her husband once suggested that she leave something for the next tourist.

In 2003, she and her husband decided to donate the approximately 2,000 items to the University of Michigan Library and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, and thus the Jewish Heritage Collection was born. The collection is dedicated to her grandsons, Mark and Dave Harris, who grew up in Birmingham, Michigan.

Since that first gift, Connie and others have continued to add hundreds of items each year and the collection now numbers well over 4,000 items, including the pushkes in this exhibit. It is housed in the Special Collections Library, which is located on the eighth floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library. Donating her vast collection to U-M, Connie said, “could not have been a better choice.”

The Jewish Heritage Collection was formed to reflect Jewish life, and it does so in an unusual assemblage of artwork, books, printed ephemera such as pamphlets and postcards, and objects of everyday and religious significance. Connie approached the building of this collection with a clear idea that what was unique about everyday Jewish life was not well known among the younger population, and might even be in danger of being lost. As such, she purposefully and thoughtfully gathered items—from mass-produced toys to household items to finely crafted silver pieces—that would document both the mundane and the ceremonial of Jewish life.

Connie Harris is the author of Portraiture in Prints, and The Way Jews Lived: Five Hundred Years of Printed Words and Images.