We had an iron rule that one should never buy anything imported, anything foreign, if it was possible to buy a locally made equivalent. Still, when we went to Mr. Auster’s grocery shop on the corner of Obadiah and Amos streets, we had to choose between kibbutz cheese, made by the Jewish cooperative Tnuva, and Arab cheese: did Arab cheese from the nearby village, Lifta, count as homemade or imported produce? Tricky.
True, the Arab cheese was just a little bit cheaper. But if you bought Arab cheese, weren’t you being a traitor to Zionism? Somewhere, in some kibbutz or moshav, in the Jezreel Valley or the hills of Galilee, an overworked pioneer girl was sitting, with tears in her eyes perhaps, packing this Hebrew cheese for us – how could we turn our backs on her and buy alien cheese? On the other hand, if we boycotted the produce of our Arab neighbors, we would be deepening and perpetuating the hatred between our two peoples. And we would be partly responsible for any blood that was shed, heaven forbid. Surely the humble Arab fellah, a simple, honest tiller of the soil, whose soul was still undefiled by the miasma of town life, was nothing more or less than the dusky brother of the simple, noble-hearted muzhik in the stories of Tolstoy!
Could we be so heartless as to turn our backs on his rustic cheese? Could we be so cruel as to punish him? What for? Because the deceitful British and the corrupt effendis had set him against us? No, this time we would definitely buy the cheese from the Arab village, which incidentally really did taste better than the Tnuva cheese, and cost a little less in the bargain. But still, on the third hand, what if the Arab cheese wasn’t clean? Who knew what the dairies were like there? What if it turned out, too late, that their cheese was full of germs?
Germs were one of our worst nightmares. They were like anti-Semitism: you never actually managed to set your eyes on an antisemite or a germ, but you knew very well they were lying in wait for you on every side, out of sight. Actually, it was not true that none of us had ever set eyes on a germ: I had. I used to stare for a long time very intently at a piece of old cheese, until I suddenly began to see thousands of tiny squirming things. Like gravity in Jerusalem, which was much stronger then than now, the germs too were much bigger and stronger. I saw them.
A little argument used to break out among the customers in Mr. Auster’s grocery shop: to buy or not to buy Arab cheese. On the one hand, “charity begins at home,” so it was our duty to buy Tnuva cheese only; on the other hand, “one law shall there be for you and for the stranger in your midst,” so we would sometimes buy the cheese of our Arab neighbors, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And anyway, imagine the contempt with which Tolstoy would regard anyone who would buy one kind of cheese and not another simply because of a difference in religion, nationality, or race! What of universal values? Humanism? The brotherhood of man? And yet how pathetic, how weak, how petty-minded, to buy Arab cheese simply because it cost a little less, instead of cheese made by the chalutzim, who worked their backs off for our benefit!
Shame! Shame and disgrace! Either way, shame and disgrace!
The whole of life was full of such shame and disgrace.
From: Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness. Translated by Nicholas de Lange
Sometimes, it is quite challenging to do the right thing. Doing right by one, seems to harm the other. In Megillat Ruth, Naomi urges her widowed brides to return to Moab, and not accompany her to what seems like a future of poverty and destitution:
“Go, return each of you to her mother’s house… Turn back, my daughters, go your way; for I am too old… it grieveth me much for your sakes, for the hand of the Lord is gone forth against me.”
Orpah decides to leave and return to Moab. This seems like the logical thing to do given the circumstances. Yet, Ruth remains with Naomi. When Ruth seeks out a way to redeem Elimelech’s field, and by doing so secure a dignified future for Naomi and for herself, Boaz approaches the near kinsman only to receive a refusal:
‘What day thou buyest the field of the hand of Naomi–hast thou also bought of Ruth the Moabite, the wife of the dead, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance?’
And the near kinsman said: ‘I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I mar mine own inheritance; take thou my right of redemption on thee; for I cannot redeem it.’
The near kinsman points out that Ruth might be barren, since in ten years of marriage she has not produced any children. Moreover, as Moabite her children might not be considered Jewish, and he will mar his own inheritance. Again, this seems like the logical choice given the complexity of the circumstances. Yet, Boaz marries Ruth and becomes redeemer.
In the passage from Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, the intellectuals debate righteous deeds only to end up with shame and disgrace. Over-intellectualizing has a way of sinking us deep in the mire of our thoughts.
Compassion is not the outcome of an intellectual debate of pros and cons, but rather the willingness to open one’s heart towards the other. The characters, who chose the reasonable, conventional path, are the ones who slip out of Megillat Ruth’s narrative. The ones who strive beyond the obvious redeem not only themselves but the nation entire.
Feature Photo: The Gleaners by Jean-François Millet (1857)