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Jerusalem of bread

On dumpster diving and a profound respect for the staff of life that crosses the divide between Arabs and Jews

“They say bread is life, and I bake bread bread BREAD!” — Nicholas Cage as Ronny Cammareri in Moonstruck

In Jerusalem, bread is life. Also, it’s garbage. In our neighborhood of Bak’a (known to five people as Geulim), one often sees bread near the garbage.

That’s right, not in the garbage, near the garbage. In glaring contrast to the neighborhood charm, bread sits near the garbage bins. You find it in clear bags, getting sweaty and moldy, or loose, getting dry and hard. Or, it might have gotten moldy first, and then have grown dry and hard.

What you don’t see are birds trying to eat the stuff. It’s basically inedible. Perhaps rats would eat it, if there were any rats, but the cats eat the rats, and the cats don’t eat bread, so it sits there until the garbage collectors come, or until some do-gooder such as myself comes along and tosses it into the trash.

It’s not hard to parse the intentions of those who put the bread near the bin, instead of in the bin. It’s bread, after all, and even if it sat in the freezer since Pesach, or was left out on the counter for a week until it became inedible, people are reluctant to throw it out. If you’ve ever eaten at a chumus joint, you may have sat next to someone who had an extra piece of pita, and kissed it before discarding it. Kissing an inanimate object might be strange, but bread is important.

Also, maybe there’s someone desperate for food who will pass by and take the bread, and because of their desperate circumstances, consider it edible. When my father was a young fella, his mother sent him to the bakery to buy day-old bread because it cost half as much as fresh bread, and they were dirt poor. There certainly are poor people in Jerusalem. Could be that for some people, any bread is bread.

Nonetheless, I would look at that bread, watch it sit untouched for a day or two, and decide that no one would ever take it, no one would ever eat it, and I would become a do-gooder, and throw the bread in the trash. Lately, though, I’ve had a change of heart. Here are three tales of bread, from the City of Gold, Copper, Light, and Bread, that might change your mind about what is trash and what is treasure.

The Dog, the Frog, and the Fog

I had taken the dog for a morning stroll and was making the final turn to go home, when I saw something astonishing come out of the frog.

I’d best explain what a frog is. There are two kinds of large trash bins in Jerusalem. There are the big plastic ones, designed to be lifted and emptied by a mechanism on the garbage truck, and there are the huge, green, metallic bins, skips, or dumpsters. The latter are a horrible eyesore and are mistreated by the residents who can’t be bothered to use all of the openings to discard their trash — the skips tend to be empty at one end, and overflowing at the other. When it’s time to cart away the trash, a truck comes, drops an empty skip into the street, drags the full one onto the flat bed, pushes the empty one into place, and…Bob’s your uncle. That skip is called a “tzfardea” in Hebrew — a frog.

It was a beautiful sunny morning in Jerusalem. The air was cool and dry. As I walked past the frog, with my dog, I saw a creature emerge from the frog, like a merman rising up above the surface of the sea, but dirtier. It was in fact a man dressed in work clothes, climbing out of the frog, and in his hands, bags and bags of sliced bread and pita. My guess is that these were discarded by the nearby 24/6 grocery store as being too old. I was dismayed, astounded, dumbfounded — you name it.

The dog was pulling for home, and as I followed him I was in a fog. I know there are hungry people in the world, I know that there are poor people in Jerusalem, I had just never witnessed someone climbing into a frog to retrieve discarded food.

Then I thought, “I should get this guy some food, maybe some cheese to go with his bread.” I wasn’t trying to be funny (or succeeding, even in my own mind); I was trying to come out of my fog and take some action. Then, I reasoned that by the time I got back to the grocery, settled the dog, and bought the cheese, the man would be gone. So I did the wrong thing, and went home. No excuses, mind you, I just did the wrong thing.

Goats of Tsefafa

A few weeks later, I arrived back from work with my carpool-mate (who happens to be my life-mate as well), and as we walked past the plastic bins that (barely) serve our apartment complex, we saw a man taking bread out of the garbage. This was a different guy, on a different day, taking different bread out of a different bin. For the record, he was standing outside the bin, reaching in.

As we walked toward the building entrance, I asked my wife to take the package I was holding as she continued inside. This time, I felt I should find out what was going on with the man, the bread, and the garbage.

Moments later, I was back at the bins, and asked the man if everything was okay. He said, sure, he was just on his way home from work, and was picking up some bread for his…goats.

Oh, I said, I was worried that maybe you needed food.  We both had a good laugh, and he told me that he lived in Beit Tsefafa (an Arab neighborhood about a kilometer away), and liked to feed old bread to his goats.

That was a relief. And now I could wonder, was the Man in the Frog also collecting food for his animals? Hard to imagine — he’d been inside the frog.

Here’s a troubling thought: is it possible that in Beit Tsefafa there’s no bread in the garbage, so the goat owner had to come to Bak’a to find discarded bread? Why can’t the Jews plan their bread consumption a little better?

Regional Strife, Regional Brotherhood

Walking down the street, heading toward the mall in Talpiot (motto: “Jesus may have shopped near here”), I saw two Arab men walking toward me. As they approached, the ensuing events happened so fast they were almost a blur, and it’s hard to remember the exact order in which they occurred, but I’ll do my best. One of the men bent down, picked up a piece of dry bread from the ground, raised it to the sky, put it on a nearby wall where another 20 pieces of bread rested, and kissed his hand. Or maybe it was kiss the bread, raise, place, or possibly raise, kiss bread, kiss hand, place.

They continued on their way, but as they walked by, I couldn’t help myself. “Excuse me,” I said, “Can I ask why you just did that with the bread?”

—  Bread is a gift from God, so it can’t be left on the ground. God gives us flour, it has to be respected as a gift.

— That’s really interesting. I live in a Jewish neighborhood, and I noticed that no one throws bread in the garbage, they just leave it on the wall, just like this (pointing).

I then told them the stories about the Dog, the Frog, and the Fog, and about the Goats of Tsefafa. Like me, they were dismayed by the former, but relieved and entertained by the exciting conclusion of the latter. Then the bread guy said, “It’s not surprising that the Jews have the same custom. Really, people are all the same. The differences just come from having lived in different regions.”

I leaned in and said, smiling, “Right, but now we live in one region together.”

We all had a good laugh, and parted ways. I call that a “habibi moment” — but more about that another time. I owe a debt of gratitude to whoever left that bread on the wall, so that I could have that moment. And next time I’m eating chumus and witness the kissing of the pita remnant, I’ll remember the Arab man with the parallel custom.

Bread and Life

This is the Jerusalem of Bread, of Brotherhood  and of Goats, where one can learn important lessons about bread and life.

About the Author
Nathan Bigman is the author of the book Shut Up and Eat (How to quietly become a triplitarian) .
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