The Human Spirit: A roll this side of heaven

By
December 24, 2010 15:23

The notion of anyone suffering from actual food shortage in modern Israel feels counterintuitive. But hunger is here




Leket foodbank

Leket foodbank volunteer 521. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Chicken or entrecote, the waiter asks. At the elegant Eden in the Water hall on Kibbutz Nir Eliahu, near Kfar Saba, the table is set, with transparent square candles burning bright on a dark tablecloth, matching serving dishes offer olive tapenade and tomato pesto, hot pita for dipping.

I’ve already opted for the mullet appetizer. I’m not really hungry. After all, it’s Saturday night, and on Shabbat I’ve eaten three abundant meals at home in the company of family and friends. I go with the vegetarian option.

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Not hungry. Tonight I’m feeling particularly grateful that I’ve never known real hunger. It’s an evening about those among us who wake up every morning without the certainty that they’ll get a meal today. Those who rely on the kindness of strangers for a simple sandwich.

Food used to be scarce in pre-state Israel and the early years of statehood. Not just in biblical times, when Jacob’s sons had to carry back provisions from their brother Joseph in Egypt. Our family trips to Tiberias have always included a visit to the old cemetery where a great-greatgrandfather died of starvation. Sabra friends reminisce about the camps for skinny children.

Israeli salad was invented in kibbutzim like this one, founded by pioneers from Turkey 60 years ago, because a few tomatoes had to make their way equally around the communal dining room. But today, the country exports candysweet cherry tomatoes and seedless persimmons. Supermarket carts are piled high with salmon, broccoli and chocolate pudding. At picnic grounds the scent of grilled kebab rises like a thousand thanksgiving sacrifices.

The notion of anyone suffering from actual food shortage in modern Israel feels counterintuitive.

But hunger is here. Follow home the immigrant teens from the youth villages where they’ve squirreled away food from the dining room to bring to the Shabbat table. Drop by the ubiquitous soup kitchens and meet the elderly and unemployed, grateful for hot lentil soup. Listen to the teachers who can’t get first graders to concentrate and learn their alef bet, they’re simply too hungry. When economists say that the gaps between the haves and have-nots are growing larger, this is what they mean.

IDEALLY, GOVERNMENTS should be able to close these gaps without the help of private donations. But that model always turns out faulty, and caring men and women step forward to help, singly and as organizations. Outside this capacious, stylish hall wait trucks marked “Leket.”

The leftovers in the kitchen will be sorted and quickly distributed to the hungry in a process called “night rescue.”

Food that would otherwise be discarded is picked up from bakeries, restaurants and food manufacturers. The catering services of this Kibbutz Nir Eliahu dining hall were the first to donate this extra food as standard practice from the weddings and bar mitzva celebrations. Hence, the first fund-raising dinner for Leket is here. Seven years ago, they volunteered their surplus to a new organization called Table to Table, founded by Joseph Gitler, a North American- born lawyer who lives in Ra’anana and couldn’t bear wasting food while some went hungry. A year ago, Gitler’s organization was rebranded as Leket, the National Food Bank.

Leket is a biblical idea, a key concept in Jewish values. We are commanded in Deuteronomy that the sheaves that fall shouldn’t be gathered. This provides food for the poor who come after to glean the remains and educates us to curb our innate selfishness. I always wonder if young Jews leading social causes on campuses or visiting Israel know about Leket and its companion pe’a, the commandment to leave a corner of the field for the needy. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter taught that a pious person is not one who worries about his fellow’s soul and his own stomach; a pious person worries about his own soul and his fellow’s stomach.

Who are today’s hungry? I ask Zara Provisor, a British immigrant and Leket sandwich project manager, who insists that the hungry aren’t easy to define. “Yes, we have immigrant children from impoverished areas, some third-generation Israeli poverty, some with parents on drugs or in prison, but that’s far from the whole story. The hungry child might be your neighbor, too, in higher socioeconomic areas. In one school we have seven children, all from the same family. The father and breadwinner abandoned them and the mother couldn’t cope. Sometimes the children we serve need to be awakened by a phone call from their teachers because their hard-working parents are out cleaning offices in the early morning and haven’t any food to leave.”

EVERY DAY Leket provides 7,000 sandwiches for hungry children, more than a million a year.

Each of the needy children is referred by social services. Still, Provisor has to prioritize; there is always a waiting list.

Certain schools prefer to get the supplies as raw ingredients and make the sandwiches on site, but in most cases volunteers wearing plastic gloves lovingly slice oven-fresh rolls and spread them with white cheese, yellow cheese, humous, tehina, matbuha, tuna and, once a week, with chocolate spread. They pack pickles and olives. If the food provided by Leket’s volunteer field near Rehovot has fruit and vegetables available to be tucked in as well, there might be an apple or a whole tomato. In Netanya, says Provisor, the sandwich-makers are mostly Holocaust survivors.

“We’re often asked why we use rolls, which cost more than sliced bread. In addition to the practical side of a roll holding the filling better and being more substantial, it’s more fun for these needy children to get a roll.”

Which, of course, makes me think of Bontsche Schvayg, the silent and meek protagonist of I.L. Peretz’s famous Yiddish story. When offered anything he wants from the supreme heavenly tribunal, the humble Bontsche opts for a warm roll and fresh butter. From Eden hall rises not the sighs of angels, but a stony resolution: Our hungry children deserve more on earth.

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel.


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