Food For Thought: Ruffling my feathers

Generosity of spirit can be genuinely elicited - but not demanded.

As I write this, I am sipping tea from my favorite domestic diva mug, listening to some seriously mellow music, relishing that clean house smell. This is not to say that I'm a diva, a music aficionado or fastidiously clean. It's just that I have an appreciation for some of the simple pleasures in life. I'm also not naïve. I know how hard we work as a family to afford ourselves these simple pleasures. Nor am I obtuse enough to think that these pleasures are guaranteed. A lovely mug, a great CD and a clean house are indications of the fact that things in our life resemble some sort of equilibrium. In Israel, strangers and friends alike seem to know everything about you. Something about the way one stands, holds their head, their very demeanor, gives away where they come from, what their political and religious standing is and even who they will vote for in the next election. All before you've even had a chance to open your mouth. It should come as no surprise, then, that I found myself in the middle of a surreal scene in the supermarket, where many assumptions were made about who I am and how much was in my nonexistent trust fund. I was standing in line on a busy Thursday morning. The woman in front of me and the two ladies behind me hailed from different parts of the world than I did. The ladies behind me were having a discussion about the price of chicken, how you needed to spend NIS 100 to qualify for the "chicken discount." They had no intention of spending NIS 100, but wouldn't it be convenient if they could find some unsuspecting soul who was spending NIS 100 and yet was not buying chickens, of whom they could request the said discount? Inevitably, the ladies glanced into my cart, filled with yogurts, fruits and vegetables, which must have appeared like a flashing sign that read "Use me!" On most occasions, I'm happy and willing to help a friend or a stranger - I'll find a stranger to vouch for me. However, on this day my antenna was up. Something about the two women put me on my guard. The overprocessed hair and superdecorated nails were not the deciding factors. It was the dishonesty of the tone. Inevitably, I was asked by the ladies if I would cooperate. I nodded my consent, concerned that if they heard my accent, something unexpected might occur. And it did. While I was busy with the women behind me, I wasn't aware of the scene unfolding in front of me. The lady ahead of me walked straight up to me, my personal space utterly violated, and said "You'll pay my bill, right?" This was not so much a question as a statement of fact. Understandably, I was surprised. I said, "No, I'm sorry, not today…" my accent out on display. One would think that the flat-out refusal would have been enough, but no. I was told that since I was obviously a woman who would be giving charity this holiday season, I should cut out the middle man and go straight to the source. I can't even begin to fathom the number of assumptions in that sentence. No witty retort came to me, though the music from The Twilight Zone did feature. Again, I said, "No I'm sorry." The reply came back: "Because of you, my child will not have diapers tonight, and I see that yours will." I casually told her that by her putting back on the shelves the six-pack of Cola, the two boxes of chocolate and the seven bags of Doritos - all things my children would not be having that evening - she would have enough money to buy the diapers. Then the weeping started. The ladies behind me got involved and asked what the big deal was. A lady of my accented birthplace could afford to pay the bill for the entire supermarket, they surmised. Honestly, does my accent automatically and biologically link me to Warren Buffet? I refused to move either from my spot or from my premise that I would not pay for the other woman's groceries. Now the chicken ladies' bill came out to NIS 130. One of the women kindly offered that I could pay NIS 30 and she would pay the remaining NIS 100. That was the last straw. I paid my bill, left the supermarket, went to load the car and realized that my cool storming off was all for naught, as I had forgotten my keys near the cashier. Had it been anything else - glasses, water bottle, a kidney - I would have left it, but how could I explain to my husband that I had donated the car to the greater good? Back to the scene I went, tail between my legs, looking for my keys, when all three ladies asked me for a ride home. Every time we look up, we think that as people, as individuals, we have exceeded our capacity to meet challenges; that we cannot handle all the stumbling blocks and burdens that are placed before us. I know that we are blessed because, as we look up, we realize that our capacity is limitless, that our hope will cover all burdens with its comforting blanket and thus we will move forward. As we enter a winter of financial uncertainty, let us cling to our capacity to hope and our empathy for those around us.