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A matter of pride

I belonged when I was 11 to a group of children organized by the rabbi of our synagogue to do odd jobs for poor, elderly members of the congregation. The rabbi strictly forbade us to take ''money or goodies'' for our jobs, and called us, to underscore our unselfishness, the Lend A Hand Society.

One morning I got a job to do some carrying, from downstairs to upstairs, for Mr. and Mrs. Abraham Cohen, two seventy year-olds who lived in a little house all by itself at the bottom of a hill. The rabbi told me that I would be carrying many, many jars of preserves, and that the Cohens would furnish me with a means of carrying - a gunny sack, a box, whatever. Little did he know what means of carrying.

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When I arrived at the house I saw it had a basement that sank deep beneath the ground. For this job, I thought, I will need the wings of an angel.

All of a sudden Mr. Cohen, followed by Mrs. Cohen, came down the steps of their front porch and headed toward me, carrying a pole with a shiny object hanging from each end. It looked like some kind of medieval weapon. I had a moment of panic, thinking the old people might have become dotty and were on their way to do in the first member of the Lend a Hand Society.

But then I saw that they were smiling, and not fiendishly, but warmly. I smiled back and went to meet them.

They had brought me, they explained, a yoke. That was what you called a pole with a bucket hanging from each end, the very thing that water carriers had used many years ago in the Old Country. Mr. Cohen's father himself had carried it on his own shoulders for much of his life, finally, after getting enough money to bring his family to America, making a present of it to his son.

''It's very light and easy to handle, David,'' Mr. Cohen said. ''Just place it firmly on your shoulders, not letting it go too far this way or that way. Think of it as a kind of business that requires you to be very shrewd.''

I looked at the yoke and wondered how many shoulders it had parted from their owners. ''Maybe I better go get some help,'' I said.

''Don't be frightened, boy,'' said Mr. Cohen, handing me the yoke. ''This will make the work fun for you. Just put two jars in each bucket. That's how much you can carry on your young back. And we thank you for saving us many steps.''

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Soft leather covered most of the pole, making it easy to grip, and the shiny rims of the buckets seemed to smile up at me. Taking courage, I followed the Cohens into the house and went down by myself the wide, well-lit stairs into the basement. No wonder they needed help. In the preserve room were shelves and shelves of jars, all big and filled, waiting to be brought upstairs for the annual ''kitchen sale'' of homemade rarities. Time after time I loaded my buckets, reminding myself of the wisdom that to the camel is never given more of a burden than it can bear, and emerging triumphant and proud into the kindly light of upstairs. But I got a little overconfident near the end and started adding more jars to my buckets. On my last delivery, after removing no fewer than eight jars, I just collapsed in a clatter of buckets.

The Cohens leaned over me, their eyes filling with smiles. Mrs. Cohen whispered something in Mr. Cohen's ear. He nodded. Helping me to my feet, he said: ''Young man, you have worked so hard you must let us give you a reward. Accept, please, this gift from us.'' Mrs. Cohen took one of the jars I'd carried upstairs and held it out to me.

Overwhelmed, I stared at it. What was I to do? Accept it and earn a scolding from the rabbi, perhaps even be banished from the Lend a Hand Society? Refuse it and take away the smiles and pride from the Cohens' eyes? I could see it meant as much to them for me to accept the gift as it had for me to use the beloved yoke.

''Show me a boy who doesn't like strawberry jam,'' Mrs. Cohen said, trying to help me overcome my hesitation, ''and I'll show you a boy who doesn't eat.''

''My wife when she made this,'' added Mr. Cohen, ''she sang. Take, David, and enjoy.''

On behalf of the Lend a Hand Society, I took it, gave thanks, and headed off to report for new duties. Before going down the other side of the hill overlooking their house, I held the gift up for them to see, like a trophy.

I could hear the rabbi scolding me, ''It wasn't kindness, David, to place sentiment over a basic no-no of the society. It was weakness.'' But I could also hear myself answering in happy self-defense, ''Oh, rabbi, you didn't see their eyes, their old, grateful, glittering eyes!''

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