Let them eat… garbage?

Just as there is more to me than simply being a person living with cancer, this blog is about more than cancer. It’s about my life: my joys, things that concern me. One of the things that is concerning me very much these days is poverty.

According to a recent report of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the poverty rate in Israel has risen to almost 21% of the population, making it the most impoverished of the 34 countries considered “economically developed”, having overtaken (“undertaken”?) Mexico in that regard. It ranks fifth in income inequality (the gap between the richest people and the poorest), after the United States, Mexico, Chile and Turkey.

Reading the reports and thinking about different people I knew during my working life, I remembered one of the first posts in this blog, originally published on October 31st, 2011. I thought I’d repost it today.

 Notes:
The photos are from the road in front of my house in central Jerusalem.
There is a summary in English of the OECD findings about Israel at the HaAretz newspaper English site, here
 
 
 

Oh! God! That bread should be so dear,

And flesh and blood so cheap!  

(Thomas Hood in The Song of the Shirt)

 

Sack of bread (and trash) tied outside a rubbish bin.

There is a Jewish tradition that it is virtually a sin to throw away bread. Many people in Israel, at least here in Jerusalem, are very careful about putting leftover bread out in public instead of throwing it away.  There is good reason to believe that the underlying reason has to do with providing for the community’s poor, but no one I’ve asked has ever been able to find me a definitive source for this. Some people say they leave bread out “for the poor”, and others “to feed the birds”. I imagine that there are quite a few people who put their leftover bread outside because “that’s what we do”.

Josa Bivin talks about the custom in her article “Lechem – Bread” on the En Gedi Resource Center site. She writes:

The importance of sharing one’s bread with the poor has remained in the Jewish consciousness until today. Instead of dumping their bread along with the rest of their garbage into the garbage carts parked along the streets, they save the bread in plastic sacks and hang it from the metal projections on the sides of the carts. That way, the bread is potentially available to the poor.

She goes on to say that once she saw “a young, poorly dressed man” take some bread that had been left out this way. I’ve never seen anyone take it, and a person would have to be in desperate straits indeed to dig the bread out of the trash bag I saw on my street this afternoon.

If you really wanted to feed the poor, wouldn’t it be more straightforward to use the day-old bread for toast or croutons or bread pudding? Then you could give the money you save by not buying bread the next day to the local soup kitchen that provides nourishing meals free of charge to anyone who needs them.

Even if someone is desperate enough to dig a piece of bread out of that rubbish, what is the cost to their dignity? What does it say about a society that puts food for the poor in a bag tied to the rubbish bin? Not only is the poor person who has to feed himself or his family debased, but so is the giver. There is no dignity in this transaction for anyone.

At least it doesn’t go completely to waste.

Should I kiss the archbishop? or Good Manners

Jerusalem is a multicultural city, and I have friends and contacts of different languages, religons, ethnicities and cultural traditions. People who live in more homogeneous settings sometimes find it confusing to move among cultures. I was discussing this with a friend recently. Being a person who writes (and talks) to figure out what she thinks, I was listening to what I was saying to see how I deal with the situation.

(Have I made sense yet?)

I heard myself saying that good manners just means putting the other person before yourself, or appearing to do so, and if you do that you’ll be pretty safe anywhere and with anyone. I think that’s about right.

Men in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community here avoid physical contact with women who are not related to them. When I am introduced to a man in that community, I don’t offer him my hand. I once met an archbishop from one of the Eastern Orthodox churches, and for some reason I was unsure if he shook hands with women or not. So when we were introduced, I hesitated for a moment and watched him for small signals of what he was expecting. He kept his hands clasped over his pectoral cross, so I took the hint.

On the other hand, I am not into kissing strangers. In fact, I really dislike it. However, in some of the French circles I am involved in, it is not at all unusual for new acquaintances to kiss you goodbye fifteen minutes after they meet you. Again, I watch the signals. So as not to make them uncomfortable, I go ahead and offer my cheek and kiss the air next to their ear. (Of course, if they were watching my signals, it wouldn’t happen at all…)

In some cultures it is rude to sit with your legs crossed. I am not aware of any culture in which it is rude not to cross your legs, so if I’m not sure, I just don’t do it. Some cultures have intricate rules about how men and women or superiors and inferiors or older and younger people interact. It is pretty much impossible for an outsider to know and follow all these unwritten codes, so how does a person who is interested in interacting with all kinds of people behave?

The way I do it is to try to be kind. For the last fifteen years or so (at a guess) kindness has been the personal quality that I have been working on cultivating and developing. I am not particularly good or holy or wise or brilliant or generous, and I’m not sure how to become those things. But kindness is behavioral; I can work on that.

As it turns out, being kind and having good manners are very similar in many ways. It’s just a question of thinking of the other person, of putting their comfort, needs and desires, before my own. “Just”. Okay, this is one of those simple things that aren’t easy, but it’s possible to work on it, to come closer and closer to this desired goal.

As the tshirt says, “Please be patient. I’m a work in progress.”

Bread in the streets

Oh! God! That bread should be so dear,

And flesh and blood so cheap!  

(Thomas Hood in The Song of the Shirt)

Sack of bread (and trash) tied outside a rubbish bin.

There is a Jewish tradition that it is virtually a sin to throw away bread. Many people in Israel, at least here in Jerusalem, are very careful about putting leftover bread out in public instead of throwing it away.  There is good reason to believe that the underlying reason has to do with providing for the community’s poor, but no one I’ve asked has ever been able to find me a definitive source for this. Some people say they leave bread out “for the poor”, and others “to feed the birds”. I imagine that there are quite a few people who put their leftover bread outside because “that’s what we do”.

Josa Bivin talks about the custom in her article “Lechem – Bread” on the En Gedi Resource Center site. She writes:

The importance of sharing one’s bread with the poor has remained in the Jewish consciousness until today. Instead of dumping their bread along with the rest of their garbage into the garbage carts parked along the streets, they save the bread in plastic sacks and hang it from the metal projections on the sides of the carts. That way, the bread is potentially available to the poor.

She goes on to say that once she saw “a young, poorly dressed man” take some bread that had been left out this way. I’ve never seen anyone take it, and a person would have to be in desperate straits indeed to dig the bread out of the trash bag I saw on my street this afternoon.

If you really wanted to feed the poor, wouldn’t it be more straightforward to use the day-old bread for toast or croutons or bread pudding? Then you could give the money you save by not buying bread the next day to the local soup kitchen that provides nourishing meals free of charge to anyone who needs them.

Even if someone is desperate enough to dig a piece of bread out of that rubbish, what is the cost to their dignity? What does it say about a society that puts food for the poor in a bag tied to the rubbish bin? Not only is the poor person who has to feed himself or his family debased, but so is the giver. There is no dignity in this transaction for anyone.

At least it doesn’t go completely to waste.