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.

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.

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5 Responses

  1. gregsmithmd says:

    I can’t “like” this post, but it certainly makes me think. I am struggling with the same issues in my own field of medicine, psychiatry, in that the medical care that is provided for these “throwaway patients” is often substandard, inferior, and “hung from the metal projections” of the medical hierarchy. What indeed does it say about us as humans that we often provide the neediest among us with the leavings of the richest of us, thinking that we have done out part and washing our hands of any more responsibility than that?

    • Knot Telling says:

      Thank you for this thoughtful comment, Greg. You’ve extended my thinking from the literal to the metaphorical. It really isn’t only about bread.

  2. Maxine D says:

    Poverty is degrading and demeaning and depressing at the best of times, but to be given the ‘dregs’ of a prosperous man’s life in such a manner is plain humiliating – and yet we see it so often, in and in so many ways, even here in ‘Godzone’.

    Although our nation is regarded as prosperous we have issues with what is being called child poverty. There are many who cannot comprehend that a child can arrive at school with no meal, unhealed sores, head lice and minimal clothing………. thankfully there are those who are giving practical assistance without condemning the children, and who are doing their best to try to break the cycle.

    • Knot Telling says:

      I seem to recall reading “the poor will always be with you”. 😉

      Let us take that as a challenge to remember to treat them as our brothers and sisters, always remembering that we could join their ranks in the wink of an eye.

  1. 16 May, 2013

    […] friend made these feelings manifest in words and pictures in a blog post titled “Let them eat…garbage?” that can be found here. @knotellin speaks of the Jewish tradition and custom of putting out leftover […]

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