Jews & Pennies: It Just Makes Cents

Have you heard the one about the two Jews who invented copper wire by fighting over a penny?

You have? Good. Now stop laughing and forget you ever heard it, you schmuck.

When I was a young Jewess, my father collected pennies. Jars, mugs, urns from my aunt Carolyn's pottery wheel—they filled the house, overflowing with tarnished copper coins. On rainy Sundays, my sisters and I used to make believe that we were the inside of an automatic teller machine. We'd grab handfuls of pennies and roll them down a ledge that braced our basement stairway. Sometimes, the pennies fell through a crack in the wall and landed -- PLINK! -- in the laundry room below. My father would charge down the stairs and catch us redhanded in the act of squandering his precious collection. And that, as they say, was not good.

In our family, every penny counted. (Or maybe, every penny was counted...oh, never mind.) My dad was an Israeli immigrant who came here in 1972, right before I was born. He didn't speak a lick of English, and for most of my life, he worked as a landscaper -- cutting lawns, moving topsoil, trimming shrubs. He worked the 12 to 14-hour days alone with one assistant, and brought in around $16,000 to support our family of five.

My dad picked up pennies everywhere he went. He had an eagle's eye,and would stop his lawnmower if he caught a glint of copper in the wake of his whirring Toro. The pennies would catch in the mower's blades, causing damage that was expensive to fix. He learned quickly that the easiest thing to do was to bend down, scoop up the tiny avengers and slip them into his pocket. Soon, this three-step dance became one swift motion, performed without a pause. If a coin fell in the forest (or more likely, on the sidewalk), my father heard it, honed in, and pocketed it with the fluid grace of a danseur.

One day, our living room shelf crashed to the floor, and a hailstorm of copper sprayed like shrapnel, pelting an unsuspecting guest who was sitting on the couch. The weight of the pennies had exceeded capacity, alerting my father that it was time to stop, drop and roll.

It took six $#!&-in' hours for me, my two sisters, my mother and my father to stack those pennies into endless piles of fifty and roll them into brown paper sleeves. Oh, how I hated the sight of Lincoln's craggy profile embossed in dirty copper! Even worse, my father demanded that we create a separate pile of pennies stamped with dates before 1952. (You see, those had a DIFFERENT etching on their backsides -- instead of the Monticello house, they were marked, simply, "One Cent.") Because they were out of print, my father deemed them rare collector's pieces, and delivered a withering, "Sha, you donkey!" when I drily asked if they'd be worth TWO cents in another hundred years.

Under the vigilant eye of a landscaper who could sniff out currency in the brush, I began my own three-step motion: Turn, stack, roll. Turn, stack roll.

By sundown, our penny fortress amounted to a little over $750. To this day, I don't know exactly what my father did with the money. I think he put it in the bank. He also bought a new shelf for our living room, and treated the family to an ala carte Chinese dinner fit for kings. But as I fell asleep, the shape of two round discs burned like fire behind my eyelids. My wrists, which had nimbly lifted chopsticks two hours before, were swollen and sore.

At that definitive moment, I decided that in my eight-year-old world, Jews and pennies would never mix again. And it just made sense. I knew Jewish people named Goldberg, Rubin, Silverman. But have YOU ever met a Jew named Copperstein? Okay, so there IS David Copperfield, but look at how he strayed from the tribe. He married the "grande dame" of shikses, supermodel Claudia Schiffer. No further elaboration is needed.

Twenty years later, I recoil at the sight, the sound, the dirty matte facade of the common penny. At overpriced coffee shops, I drop my pennies into the "tip" jar, even though the chutzpah of its very presence offends me. When I clean my room, stray pennies are unearthed from carpet corners and hurled into the trash. And because I feel a little guilty throwing away money like that, I scatter my pennies on the sidewalk nowadays. One person's junk is another's treasure, after all. As I cast my coins to the wind, each penny seems to ask with a plaintive plink, "Papa, can you hear me?"

And even though he lives 500 miles away, somehow, I think he can.





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©2001 by Ophira Edut. The hand that rocks the dreidl rules the world.