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Her Tin Can Overfloweth: $2.5 Million for Charity

September 11, 1986|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

For anyone who doubts that one person can make a difference--even one little (4 feet 11, 91 pounds), old (77), sickly (pacemaker, diabetes) lady--consider Sylvia Orzoff.

Six days a week, virtually every week of the year, from about 8 a.m. to noon, rain or shine, feeling good or feeling lousy, this frail, retired waitress faithfully stands outside Canter's Fairfax Restaurant Delicatessen and Bakery. She paces back and forth, relentlessly rattling a blue-and-white tin can at people, urging them to donate to her favorite charity.

"Ladies and gentlemen . . . you got $2? Put one in here. How about it, beautiful?" she says, frequently chasing after younger people, because "the old ones, they don't give out that much--the young ones give more." It's a routine she has performed without fail for the last 23 years, often returning for a few hours in the afternoons to service more "customers." How much can one person raise in that time? Thousands of dollars, obviously. Perhaps even hundreds of thousands.

But if the little, old, sickly lady is Orzoff, try nearly $2.5 million. Much of it in quarters.

According to Dora Posner, a member of the board of directors of the Jewish National Fund (Orzoff's charity), the latest tally of her contributions is $2,468,000, a figure that has not been adjusted for inflation.

"I don't know what it is about her--whether it's her appeal, her age or the way she approaches people," Posner marveled. "You'd be amazed how if I stood right next to her, I couldn't get a tenth of what she gets. She knows every stone on the street. . . .

"They all know her. Those that are living and those that are passed on. Nobody would ever attack her--the whole street would be on top of them. But sometimes she'll get discouraged when these punks come around and say she's taking the money for herself. She'll get down in the dumps, but I'll come along and put her right back."

Though Orzoff has had her blue-and-white boxes stolen while working the street, she's never been physically harmed. And despite her size and health, she seems abundantly capable of handling obnoxious types. "The bums are afraid of me," she said, proudly. "They used to bother me but I call the police."

The same goes for dope dealers.

"There's a man in the parking lot in the corner who sells dope. I tell the police," she explained, in English that still bears a slight Russian accent (Orzoff immigrated to the United States at age 17).

"The police take him away for a while and then he comes back. He's a terrible man. People give him money. That spoils my business."

She holds the solicitors from competing Jewish charities, who work in front of Canter's on the weekends, in only slightly higher esteem: "They come on Saturdays. They shouldn't go out on a Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath). It takes my dollar bills. What can I say? My customers know I'm not there on Saturday. I don't care how much money I could make on Saturday, I wouldn't go. You have to have respect for God, too."

Born on Dec. 25, 1908 (a year in which Hanukkah fell on Christmas Day), Orzoff grew up in a part of northwestern Russia not far from Latvia. Her mother died when she was 2 1/2 years old, and she was raised--when she wasn't running away from home--by a stepmother and her father.

"My life story's a bad story. I was not very happy as a child," she said on a recent Saturday afternoon, dressed in a housecoat and slippers, sitting in the living room of her apartment about two blocks from Canter's.

It's a modest but comfortable place, filled with trophies and framed citations for her charity work. And there are photographs everywhere: Orzoff and her late husband, her late son, and her daughter and grandson, who live in Phoenix.

This day, she was not feeling well. Her finger, broken during a fall a few weeks ago, was aching--so much so that she later went into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center's emergency room to have it checked for infection. A devout Orthodox Jew, the pain had not stopped Orzoff from attending temple, but she didn't stay for a bar mitzvah celebration.

"How could I celebrate? This is my son's birthday," she said of her son who died five years ago. The day before, Orzoff had visited the cemetery. As she slowly walked up to her apartment, tears filled her eyes and she asked to postpone an interview. "He was a prince," she said, shaking her head.

Now, despite the fact that she had promised to tell her story, Orzoff suddenly refused. "It's not for the paper to say what I went through. It would make a whole book. For a book is all right. It's not a pleasant life. Some people don't believe the paper. They'd say, 'How could a young girl go through so much hell?' A book--you have to believe it."

But a few facts about Orzoff's life had already been disclosed:

--During her youth in Russia, she didn't attend school very often "because my stepmother didn't let me"; before she left for the United States at age 17, she had run away from home twice.

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