Is Sylvia Orzoff the world’s most successful panhandler? A lifetime haul of more than $2 million—by the best reckoning—must be way up there for her line of work. Granted, Orzoff has certain advantages. She collects for an established charity, the Jewish National Fund, which reclaims land in Israel, and she’s staked out very friendly territory—the sidewalk in front of Canter’s, probably L.A.’s best-known Jewish deli. Also, she believes in her cause: “The Jews should have a place to go,” Sylvia, who is Orthodox, says fiercely. On the other hand she is 4’11”, 77 years old, diabetic and wears a pacemaker. Feh!
At her post five hours a day, six days a week for 22 years, Orzoff raises funds like this: A man drops change in her blue-and-white “pushky,” as the neighbors have dubbed her tin can, but withholds two quarters.
“How about the rest of it?” Sylvia demands.
“I need that to buy a paper,” the man protests.
“Forget what you need,” Sylvia shoots back, and with a shrug the man forks over his newspaper money.
The style grates on many people, and Sylvia has a few feuds going. She was boycotting Canter’s, which she says accused her of freeloading a cup of coffee. But all is okay now. She also has a loyal clientele, which seems to embrace her as a mega-Jewish grandmother, or super noodge. “She does good work,” admits deli owner Al Canter, although in a long-suffering tone. Says one regular giver, “I don’t even know what she’s collecting for; she’s just a nice lady.”
From what little she’ll say, Sylvia has not had an easy life. The daughter of an itinerant butcher in Russia, she emigrated at 17 and spent 33 years in Chicago waitressing and raising a daughter, now in Arizona, and a son, who died a few years ago. Widowed, she moved to California in 1963 and lives on social security in a small, pleasant apartment near Canter’s. Begging, or demanding, is her vocation now. “People need something to work for,” she says, “not just have dinner and listen to TV.” But it’s a hard trade. “Pennies, pennies, they call that giving,” she complains. “This is what I have to go through.” Cough up, buster.