A guy walked briskly into my favorite bakery, snatched a plastic bag from the hook, filled it with fresh rolls from the mound on display, and then left just as briskly as he had entered.
I did a few double-takes between him and the clerk at the register, and then — who knows why — I decided to speak up.
“That guy didn’t pay.” I said.
The clerk looked up, looked in the direction I was pointing, and said calmly, “He must have needed it.”
My hand rose to my heart. With only 5 words, the clerk had transformed a thief into just a regular guy with tsouris; a fellow traveler struggling to make ends meet. Maybe even a father with hungry children.
For days I repeated the scene to anyone I could get to listen. This was why I came to Israel. Here was the communitarian spirit I had hoped to find. Imagine the world if all of us took the time and effort to look at things from the other guy’s perspective.
Then I told an Israeli friend the story. His response was less lofty. “The clerk probably wasn’t the owner.”
This time it only took 6 words to transform the story. (7 words if you count “wasn’t” as 2) I found myself face-to-face with bottom-line capitalism with a dash of class struggle.
The hungry man with weeping children who left without paying was still a desperate soul who deserved compassion, but thanks to my friend’s cynicism, the glow from the clerk’s halo dropped some serious wattage.
Per his worldview, it didn’t count as generous if you gave away somebody else’s buns. Even worse, by not guarding the goods from theft, he could be considered an accomplice.
And hey! What if the clerk allowed everyone to walk out without paying? Didn’t he have some obligation to his employer?
All this over-thinking started because I wanted to feel that I was living in a country that embraced ideals of fairness and compassion
Don’t worry. There’s a happy ending (per my sights, anyway). I’ve learned the clerk is, in fact, the owner.
So I’ve dusted off my first idealized version where the clerk-owner actually cares about the needs and predicaments of his customers. Why? Because I want to believe there are people in the world like that. Is that so much to ask? Have things gotten that bad?
And the fact that the bakery is still in business shows (I hope) that empathy and good business sense are not mutually exclusive.
But what I really want you to know, is that this bakery sells a loaf in the shape of a circle, festooned with all kinds of nuts and seeds, that is so yummy it makes you think that maybe you CAN live by bread alone.
You have to try it when you’re next at the shuk! But please, don’t forget to pay.