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Wednesday, 13 November 2013


“And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest” (Leviticus 19:9).

Jewish tradition so prizes the tender, pastoral story of the convert, Ruth that the text is placed next to The Song of Songs in The TenachHebrew Biblical Canon.

“Her mother-in-law said to her, ‘Where have you picked today and where have you wrought? May your benefactor be blessed’”  (Ruth 2:19).

It’s therefore natural for it to have prompted some of English literature’s most cherished works, including John Keats’s verse (below) and Somerset Maugham’s story, The Alien Corn.

“Perhaps the self-same song that found a path Ruth
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn ….”

‘Ode to a Nightingale’ – John Keats

The poet and the master prose writer both turned the biblical tale upside down, making  their subjects mourn their emotional exile, whereas Ruth was anxious to leave Moab to return to Judea with Naomi, her widowed mother-in-law and to be part of Israelite society.

I was aged only 16 when I first saw Maugham’s story adapted for television and was captivated by the romantic anguish of the failed musician who killed himself.  But reading the original as an adult, it becomes clear that the author, a closet bi-sexual in an age when practising homosexuality was illegal,  wrote it to reflect  his own sense of isolation and estrangement.

While the plot and characterisation  are pervaded by the  popular anti-Jewish stereotypes of the European inter-war years, in real life Maugham was personally friendly with Jews. So I insist that The Alien Corn cannot be about wealthy German Jews desperate to be accepted as members of the British aristocracy. Instead, I view it as an extended metaphor for Maugham’s personal condition, representing first his family who uprooted themselves from Yorkshire  to become urbane metropolitans and then himself, someone who was not only unable to satisfy his voracious sexuality  but was forced also to acknowledge that his own talent, like that of the would-be pianist, George Bland was no more than "in the very front row of the second rate”.

Hungry Israeli Kids? That’s Hard To Stomach!

Leket.Nahalal.22.09.13.(04)jpgAll of this returns me to present-day Israel where it doesn’t take the droppings from a back-breaking investigation to discover that in barely a decade Leket (‘Gleanings’) has become the country’s largest charitable  food bank and food rescue network.

Arriving as a western immigrant I was surprised to learn that about one-third of Karmiel residents lived on benefits. This is not just an  Arab issue as the only real poverty I’ve witnessed has been among former Russians, like the man  scavenging for cigarette butts in a public dustbin or another ahead of me at a supermarket check-out paying for his goods with a thick wad of vouchers.

The cost of living in Israel is at least twenty per cent higher than in Europe yet jobs are hard to find and wages are very low. How do people balance this paradox?  I’ve been told that if they  earn enough to open a bank account, they live on permanent overdrafts! But the strange anomaly of being urged to emigrate to Israel – to live in the Jewish State but without the means to enjoy it - is no laughing matter for those at the sharp end.

Some privation is self-inflicted by people who simply refuse to work. More is suffered by new immigrants from countries like Ethiopia who arrive  after extraordinarily courageous journeys with only the clothes they wear and then discover they face many more years of grinding poverty while they become accustomed to western life. But most upsetting is the apparently unending line of needy school children whom Leket helps to feed daily.

The charity estimates that 1.9M Israelis live in poverty and “… nearly a quarter of the country's population suffers from an imbalanced or insufficient diet” due to that hardship. Indeed, if Leket did not do its sterling work, about 850,000 Israeli children of all backgrounds would go hungry each day while hundreds of thousands of tons of food would simply rot away.

No matter where they live, there are always those on the poverty line and below who are constitutionally unable to provide even the basics for themselves as they do not understand how to budget and find it difficult to save.  These are the type of people who need help.

When I volunteered during the summer at Leket’s storage depot in Nesher, Haifa, I met other volunteers along with paid staff who confirmed that  they also assist Israel’s ‘at-risk’ sector  and the non-profit organisations which offer nutrition education among other facilities.

But when I helped to sort vegetables and load crates at the depot or enjoyed a couple of invigorating sessions pulling turnips and kohlrabi on Leket’s specially designated field at Moshav Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley, I was only one of 45,000 volunteers helping with a wide range of activities which include rescuing more than 770,000 hot meals, 110,000 loaves of bread and  more than 18M pounds of produce and perishable goods.  Other volunteers make more than 7,600 sandwiches each day to feed underprivileged children at 113 schools in more than  30 cities throughout Israel.  Furthermore, food is reclaimed from hundreds of suppliers which is then redistributed to 190 non-profit organisations which help a wide range of people of all ethnic groups. No-one, no matter their background, is denied assistance.

My most recent volunteer picking session took place in September during  the harvest festival of Succot – Tabernacles - when I was part of a very large crowd that pulled  95,000 lbs of kohlrabi to help feed more than 12,000 needy families. These sessions  exude a jolly party atmosphere so it’s no wonder that families celebrating a barmitzvah or batmitzvah join the fun and the child receives a commemorative certificate to mark their efforts. Even less surprising is that this year’s World Food Day harvesting project became so popular that some applicants had to be turned away! Leket.Nahalal.22.09.13

Before closing, I want to commend Leket Israel for producing an outstandingly attractive website which includes a novel approach to Jewish ‘soul’ food:  Its new ‘Parasha Project’ involves  celebrated scholars offering bi-lingual food-related commentaries on the biblical portion of the week. Their essays are then illustrated by relevant recipes from well-known food writers and chefs. Typical is the commentary and accompanying recipe for the week ending Sabbath 09 November. The study passage was written by US poet Professor Alicia Ostriker of Rutgers University while the recipe for ‘Sinyeh – Kebab Patties baked in Tahini’ - came from Miriam Kresh of Israeli The original recipe can be found on Leket’s website or at


Mark.UlyseasThis article first appeared in the December 2013 edition of Live Encounters magazine ( edited by Mark Ulyseas, a faithful supporter of Israel and all matters Jewish.



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