Alexander A. Winogradsky Frenkel

 Food, famine and human decency

Cows are undoubtedly the national emblematic animals in Israel, the nourishing milky Israeli cow. One of the most conflicting issues we face today is « food » and how to eat properly, decently, and with measures, to avoid growing fat or “phat” as they say overseas and distort the image of human forms.

The « few extra pounds » can dramatically change into full overweight which endangers life and flexibility, even at the mental level. For example, the Samoan people in the Pacific Ocean islands were put on a strict diet. North Americans have also a reputation for connecting hours of television with junk food. Hebrew slang « jank/ז’אנק » corresponds to fat, unhealthy food basically due to laziness and absence of body motion.

Look at the children at 2 pm. in the Old City; small Arab boys and girls, teens swallow over-sugar junk, always the same candies. The kids grow fat very quickly. At the same time, another day, in a city bus, Jewish pupils and elder people « nosh » huge munchies, full of oil, French fries, or choco-something with strudels and various cakes. Oily King and Queen Size pizzas…

In the restaurants, the tables are still full of half-crunched plates. They will be thrown into the trash because the Law is very strict – at least it is health-centered! But what a waste of food and quite often of very expensive dishes. In the meanwhile, all kinds of wonderful volunteering associations distribute tons of food to impoverished families that live more and more in dire indigence. I know families whose kids go every night to bed with only two yogurts or so. This is in Jerusalem and other cities of the country.

In Europe, privation and poverty lead associations and benefactors to create Winter « food providing centers and points » and hunger is a major concern everywhere, also affecting so-called « wealthy » states such as the United States… Impoverishment is everywhere and hunger is real. It turns out to be shameful for many individuals, lanky silhouettes will hide and keep silent in their “down and out” position.

It is a must and a really good idea to share meals and to invite banquets, as stated in the Gospel and the Scripture. Isaiah said that people could come and eat freely, i.e. gratis; it is not that clear in English. Matthew 10:8 repeats the basic rule « You received freely, give freely».

Food and distribution of food to everybody has always been a major concern in the Jewish tradition. Middle Easterners have suffered from hunger and famine throughout history. This is why the « Birkat HaMazon/ברכת המזון – Blessing (after) of Meal(s) » is a positive commandment that cannot be swallowed up speedily. « Eretz chemdah\ארץ חמדה – a nice (because nurturing) earth » whose fruit and plants are excellent insists on the role of the soil, the Land, the Motherland (מולדת).

As mentioned in the prayer’s psalm: « yachlu anavim | veyisba’u\ יאכלו ענוים- וישבעו – let the lowly eat | and be satisfied » (Psalm 22:27), food does not only aim at nurturing or feeding, but also at satisfying and rejoice*ing the belly, i.e. individuals and collectivities. The verse is mentioned in the prayer after the meal in the Byzantine tradition. Food is a challenging matter of survival. In the Bible, « hunger/re’av/h = רעב-ה » is a significant plague that attacks a region regularly.

The Middle East region has always been endangered by the conquest of desert and wilderness over nature and fields. The soil can become emptied or dried out and crops do disappear regularly. Hebrew makes no distinction between « hunger » and « famine » which is a rather high-level widespread epidemic catastrophe. « Ra’av\רעב » means that people are hungry or affected by a famine. Talmud Bava Bathra 8b states that « Famine is a severer affliction than war ». Chapter 5:8 of the « Pirkey Avot – Sayings of the Fathers » insists on the fact that the ”sacrificial meat never became putrid” and that God always provides space and abundance.

There is such an insightful and evident statement in Sukka 52b: «A small organ is in man (stomach), when you starve it is satisfied; when you satisfy it, it is hungry ». “Re’avon\רעבון” also means “hunger, famine” as in Kohelet Rabba V:10: “Did the Lord give the manna as food of famine in scantiness?” whereas “ra’avtan\רעבתון” is a voracious eater, a glutton and a greedy person that eats on his own, i.e. that he does not restrict his appetite to drinking, in particular of wines and alcohol (Talmud Bava Betsia 25b).

In the Bible, times of famine, and hunger alternate with periods of abundance. This started to be mentioned in the Book of Genesis and the warning to Joseph who interpreted Pharaoh’s bovine dreams. Somehow, he finally anticipated the miracle of manna in the wilderness; famines are indeed worse than wars. They often gave a push to conquerors when Jerusalem was besieged during the time of the two destructions of the Temples.

The Book of Lamentation/Eycha-איכה cries out profound distress as mothers eat their kids (Lamentation 3:20). A horrible question that makes “swallow” or frenetically eat up, which shows as a sort of disease made of anxiety and lust for short-term satisfaction that sways up between overweight or anorexia for young girls and women.

Eating is also the banquet like the “se’udah hashlishit\סעודה השלישית – third Shabbat meal” when the tzadik – the leader of a Hassidic community –  shares the meat and delivers his teaching: Words become a banquet or a festive “farbrengen\פארברענגען” (Yiddish: “ingathering”). The same as when Jesus asked his disciples to feed the crowd on the mount and they were reluctant considering that the people could go and buy the food (Matthew 14:13, Luke 9:13). In the Eastern Orthodox Church, this can be paralleled to the blessing of five loaves, grains, oil and wine as sharing “lechem\לחם – bread” that remains “lachma\לחמא-ה – meat, flesh” in Arabic and consists in distributing food to the full (cf. the plentiful measure of barley gathered by Ruth 3:15).

Harvesting is a feast everywhere and whatever religious beliefs. Thus, in the fall of 1621, the Mayflower pilgrims shared the bread with the native Indians who were having their Keepunumuk = harvest feast. Nice partaking of fowl, fish, wheat, and corn as in so many parts of the world. President Abraham Lincoln’s intuition of a national day for all Americans to thank God for the homeland’s wealth was a bit prophetic but not realistic at that time. It became possible in 1863.

Interestingly, Thanksgiving Day – which as in Canada is truly a harvest feast –  was determined as the fourth Thursday of November by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1939, by the time of the Great Depression. The law came into force in 1943, during World War II. The day is a secular, national, and international turkey festive harvest meal (earlier in October in Canada because of the time for harvesting).

Curiously, the final date was defined during the hardships of the Great Depression in which lots of Americans lost their money, suddenly fell in need and meals were distributed all over an impoverished country. At this point, the Goldene Medine\גאלדענע מדינה (“Golden State” in Yiddish) still reckons a huge number of needy people who do not have enough to eat. The recent wildfires that destroyed homes of elderly, middle-class people, and individuals in different parts of the United States, in particular California, show the fragility of life conditions.

In Israel, huge portions of fat oily pizzas or greasy big hamburgers were, to begin with, the usual and only meals for the poor Jews who were leaving the harbor of Hamburg in Germany, en route to America! [Cf. P. Kriwaczek: Yiddish Civilisation, p.311]. The model was simple: a piece of basic meat easy to store in ice for a few days, and a small piece of bread comparable to the German and Central European “Brötchen”, “broytele/ברויטעלע” in Yiddish. But, both the Arab and Jewish societies waste food without decency. Don’t say you leave anything to Prophet Elijah…

Turning back to the East and looking to Ukraine, November 25th is the official Ukrainian national Day of remembrance for all the victims who died during the period of the “Holodomor/Голодомор – famine killing, mass murders via famine”.

The famine was projected as a political way to hunger and thus kill the Ukrainian inhabitants of the Soviet Ukrainian Republic. The word, in Ukrainian, comes from “moryty holodomоr\морити голодом – to impose death through famine, hunger” as it happened in 1932-1933.

After 1920, the Soviets favored the Ukrainians for a short while, then obliged by law to implement a process of collectivization. In these wide regions of rich fields and harvesting where small family farms were normal and often rather big compared to Europe or the Middle-Eastern context, collectivization suddenly introduced a system that stopped private properties. This allowed the emergence of less and less productivity for the inhabitants.

The government of Moscow decided that a certain amount of grain supply should be delivered in 1932, but by the end of the year, it was clear that the target would not be reached. On January 15, 1933, more than 100.000 people were sentenced either to death or deportation. The government required to be given all the “harvest” and available grains, which drastically provoked the famine. It appears that, contrary to the other famines that afflicted the former Soviet Union from 1921 recurrently till 1947, etc., there has been a political decision to hunger the Ukrainian nation, in particular the peasants who had backed the independence movements in 1917 by the time of the Revolution.

The Soviet government never accepted to recognize this form of extermination of the Ukrainian people, mainly in the agricultural regions. It seems that some grains were provided, still in low quantity. On the other hand, the famine caused the death of ca. 3.2 million people, mostly among the many people who lived in then-Ukraine who did not belong to one singled-out national identity, but diversified backgrounds (Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Russians, Greeks, Jews, Bessarabians, Byelorussians, along with Gipsies and Turkiç Gagauzes, Tatars…).

The statistics are not clearly upgraded at present. They show that these people were intentionally submitted to hunger to be killed, and destroyed by a crooked mental set of procedures. It was a system of annihilation. At the core of the concept, in any, there is this rampant obsessive lust to conquer bodies and souls and reduce them into slavery. Food is indeed the perfect medium for seizing a nation, a social group, or a community and ruling over them till they can be erased.

Nowadays, Ukraine has defined this period as a “genocide”. Other specialists speak of a “mass murder”. It is not possible here to explain all the elements that were interwoven in the backgrounds of Ukrainian society at that time. At present, millions of former Soviet citizens are starving and have no healthy food, in Ukraine but also in the vast areas of the Federation of Russia.

How peculiar that a lot of Jews first fled from Ukraine to North America where the time of harvesting and getting the crops became a feast of “Thanksgiving”. Rukhl Schaechter notes in The Forward (11/22) that “there’s a lovely song that expresses thanks for the harvest. Written and composed by Mark Warshawsky (pronounced Varshavsky), author of the classic, “Afn Pripetshik,” it’s called “Dos lid fun dem broyt” (“The Song of Bread”), i.e. “Zolst undz vayter (Got) take bentshn mit hatslokhe un mit broyt./May you continue (God) to bless us with success and with bread – זאלסט אונדז ווייטער (גאט) טאקע בענטשן מיט הצלחה און מיט ברויט.

Others arrived just recently in Israel. Faith often obliges to refrain from eating at certain periods of the year; but never to die of hunger. We must think of the captives that get so little food, one kidnapped just released had to eat cleaning paper to fill his stomach. Most of the abducted lost ca. 33 lbs.

The Byzantine tradition strongly underscores how “meals” composed of “wheat, oil, wine, and large loaves of bread” directly relate to the Holy Mysteries shared among the believers as the “Lord is in our midst”. He is alive and life-giving, nurturing both the flesh and the soul.

About the Author
Alexander is a psycho-linguist specializing in bi-multi-linguistics and Yiddish. He is a Talmudist, comparative theologian, and logotherapist. He is a professor of Compared Judaism and Christian heritages, Archpriest of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, and International Counselor.
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