In My Own Write: Scales of worth

Moliere knew what quality wasn't. Do we know what it is? And if we do, how much do we value it?

write way home 88 (photo credit: )
write way home 88
(photo credit: )
Quality: A degree or standard of excellence - The Collins English Dictionary A bygone era's use of the word "quality" to describe those born into high society was justly mocked by Moliere in his 1659 play Les Précieuses Ridicules, which contained these lines: "People of quality know everything without ever having been taught anything." Clearly, quality as we understand it today has nothing to do with money or social position. Rather, it describes something of genuine worth that we aspire to achieve or possess - which makes the terror organizations' use of the term "quality attack" for one that kills or wounds many all the more jarring. Certainly the word has an old-fashioned ring, an assurance of durability which is comforting or quaint, depending, I suppose, on one's stage in life. I am the gratified and somewhat astonished owner of an oscillating fan and reflector heater, both 34 years old. Bought when I moved into my first Israeli apartment, in Ramat Gan, they are made by a well-known local company and in perfect working order. The fan, especially, is still a handsome fellow, with a gleaming white body and emerald-green Perspex blade. Impressive? My upstairs neighbor Itzik's electric heater which, he told me last winter, "heats well," belonged to his father and is from the time of the British Mandate. His kids fight over who is going to inherit it. MOLIERE was right to ridicule; and yet an undoubted nobility attaches to those for whom quality is a defining principle of existence. In the mid-1970s, my parents sent over a "lift" of basic items for my apartment. They had gone to the Ercol company in High Wycombe, a British town famous for its furniture, to order a living-room suite. After consulting its catalogue, I asked if they would include a rocking chair that had taken my fancy. This was the exchange with the sales assistant, as reported by my mother: "Please add this rocking chair, covered with the same fabric as the suite." "I'm sorry, madam, but we couldn't do that." "Why not?" "The sofa and armchairs are made of beech, and the rocking chair is made of pine. We cannot sell you them together, as if they were a set. What would it do to our reputation?" My mother had to beg the firm to put its finer feelings to one side. Only when she pointed out that the items were leaving the country did it agree to what it made clear was a shameful compromise. I've bought a lot more things since then, and - Israeli salaries being what they are - made a lot of compromises. Cheap and cheerful, ignoble as it may be, has an undeniable attraction when one's bank balance is, well, unbalanced. And yet buying cheap may often prove to be something we can ill afford when our bargain-basement acquisition turns out to need replacing as soon as the guarantee (if there was one) expires. Quality still beckons in the Israel of 2008, and not only to the well-heeled. IN THE Israeli workplace, as elsewhere, quality can be a flickering flame, partly because every kind of high-level production and craftsmanship requires care and time - and time, as we all know, is money. The increasing and all-pervading influence of the Internet over the past 15 years or so in the newspaper and music industries, for example, has seriously impeded the continuation of business as usual. Israeli employers across the board, feeling the sharp pinch of this and other global economic realities, are showing little shame over their exclusive preoccupation with the bottom line, squeezing budgets hard and cutting manpower to the bone. Amid their genuine hardship, there is also the element of greed, plus the very Israeli reliance on improvisation and the culture of yihye beseder - "(Don't worry) it'll be fine." All these conspire, if not to kill quality outright, then to constrict it in handcuffs and leg-irons. That said, employers do pay lip service to quality. In fact, they're happy to have it, love it - so long as they don't have to pay for it. I BEGAN with a playwright's parody of human quality, and would end with a question: What is the real yardstick - how do you measure a given person's worth? When it comes to Nobel Prize winners, great writers and artists, philanthropists, moral leaders and the like, the answer is obvious. But what about the rest of us? And what, I couldn't help wondering during a recent visit, about those who seem to have little obvious value - like the youngsters who attend the Hetena school-cum-day care center in Jerusalem where my daughter did her National Service? These are some of Israel's most heartbreakingly disabled children. They can't walk or talk. Some can't even communicate. Teenagers hunched in wheelchairs waiting to be taken to their classrooms looked like little old people. One nine-year-old, sitting tranquil and aloof, was meltingly beautiful. These are society's weakest members. They will never give anything back to it, not even unskilled labor. So where do they figure on the scale of human quality? My morning at the government-run center, observing and, at one point, feeding a little boy his breakfast, filled me first with trepidation, then with sadness, and finally with something like elation. The teachers, carers and special activity instructors exhibited such patience and love for their charges - some of whom responded in their own way, some of whom didn't - that it was inspiring just to be there to see it. Perhaps, my daughter later suggested, these innocent souls, who never uttered a mean word nor did a bad thing, are here partly to be a channel for our goodness and compassion. If so, in a world where goodness and compassion are so woefully scarce, these helpless little beings are of a rare and fine quality indeed. As to the whole purpose and enigma of their sojourn here on earth, and ours, too - as to that, only the Great Manufacturer knows the answer.