October 25, 2010

MAZON at 25: Reflections From Our Founder

Mazon at 25 photo

Leonard Fein (right) with Joel E. Jacob

Were I to acknowledge all those here, and some not here, who deserve to be acknowledged on this festive occasion, I would by far exceed my time. But I cannot refrain from mentioning a few: my old friend, Ted Mann, our very first board chair; Lee Javitch, Ted’s successor as chair, the first person I turned to for seed money just days after we started, long before there was any reason to believe we’d flourish, and to whom we wish a speedy and total recovery; Irv Cramer, who could not be with us today, for years my beloved and stalwart comrade in arms, MAZON’s first executive director, my partner in bringing MAZON from infancy to adulthood; Barbara Bergen, who has so heroically helped guide us through these last months as our interim president; Mia Hubbard, our oh so gifted grants director; Ernie Bogen, whose remarkable generosity helped make this luncheon possible; Ruth Laibson, who as chair of the planning committee went above and beyond, and below as well, attending to details large and small, without whose steady hand at the tiller we’d long since have capsized; my other friends and colleagues on the MAZON board and on our magnificent staff; my brother, Rashi, whom you’ve met and his wife, Ruth; Theo Bikel and Tamara Brooks, whose constant friendship means so much to me; and finally, last but nowhere near least, my daughters, Rachel and Marc, her fiancé and Jessie and her husband, Rob.

Together, these last 25 years, we have built one of America’s premiere anti-hunger enterprises, widely regarded as especially adept in its grant-making and especially ardent in its advocacy. Together with many distinguished and expert partners, we have done battle with hunger, mobilizing millions of people and many tens of million of dollars, to put an end to this scourge, this scandal. Six thousand or so grants later, we have earned the pride we feel today.

But all that gives rise to the obvious question: If we and our colleagues who engage in the battle are as smart and as single-minded as we like to think, and if, as we do, we have devoted allies in the halls of congress and in the other corridors of power, then how is it that this problem, a simple problem when compared to war, to inadequate affordable housing, to plague and pestilence, to bigotry and bullying, to crime and to greed – how come this problem persists? How can we think ourselves effective when 49 million people, including 23 percent of all American children, live in food insecure households, an increase of 13 million since the recession began, when more than 17 million people, twice as many as in the year 2000, cannot afford enough food to feed all the members of their family over the course of the year, this in these United States?

Oh, how I wish I knew the one killer answer to that question. I know the Great Recession is not a sufficient answer, nor is the whole of the answer a dearth of resources, nor is compassion fatigue an adequate explanation.

What then to do, when wrestling with a problem, a shameful problem, that is both solvable and, evidently, intractable?

The answer to that question, at least, is straightforward. We do what we can, even if what we can do is not enough. We know that we are not required to complete the work; we know as well that we are not free to desist from it.

So we persist, with our disappointments intact – and our rewards, too. Among those rewards there’s the capacity we add to the agencies we help fund and also, and most obviously, the relief we thereby bring to those whose hunger is allayed by the soup kitchens, the food pantries, the food banks, all the agencies that offer direct food assistance to those in need.

There’s the food our grantees provide, and more and more there’s a touch of dignity as well. As a song that dates to a textile workers’ strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 has it, “Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes; hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us also roses,” words that accurately describe the work of many of our grantee agencies. With growing frequency, the halt and the lame, the homeless and the harassed, single mothers and these days whole families, too, newly poor, come to soup kitchens where, instead of the familiar cafeteria setting, they are seated at tables for four or six or eight people, often with a flower on their table, and are there served their meal. Bread – and roses.

But it is not only the agencies we support and the people they serve who are rewarded by our work. We, too, are among its beneficaries., and it is to the benefits we derive that I want to devote the balance of my time. I begin with one that has very special meaning to me, a benefit that has nothing overt to do with hunger but has everything to do with hunger.

At first blush, the benefit is linguistic, not caloric. MAZON has played an important part in bringing classic Jewish language back to life, in infusing that language with urgent contemporary meaning.

Think, for example, of the matzah we raise at our Passover seder and the words we recite, kol dichfin yetei vyechol, let all who are hungry enter and eat. Now I am quite certain that whoever it was who first spoke or wrote those words knew the names of the hungry, his neighbors down the street who had fallen on hard times. Yet we who recite those words today? There are very, very few of us who know the name of even one hungry person.

What, then, does our recitation mean? Is it really just to reassure ourselves that we are compassionate people? Does pronouncing an ancient formula provide proof of our compassion? How can that be?

Comes MAZON and says “No!,” that is not enough. Instead, imagine that just as you recite those words, there’s a knock on your door, and when you open the door, there stands a family, obviously in distress, a mother, a father, two children, and they ask whether there might be room for them at your table, and of course you make room for them. But, we say, do not be frightened, there will not be a knock on your door. Still, can you send us what it would have cost you to feed four more people at your seder? And we will see to it that your money is wisely spent. And so the tired words of old come to new life.

One more linguistic example: think about the name we give to our High Holiday appeal, “the corners of our fields.” As distant from Jewish tradition as so many Jews are, I’d guess that the term “corners of our fields” still resonates for most, who know that we are prohibited from harvesting all our crops, that we are enjoined to leave the corners of our fields for the poor to glean. The command is in that part of the Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, that is commonly called “the holiness code.” There we are taught that “you shall not dissemble and you shall not lie,” “you shall not defraud your fellow man,” “you shall not keep the hired man’s wages with you through the night until morning,” “you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind,” “you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” and then “should a sojourner sojourn among you, you shall not wrong him. Like the native among you shall be the sojourner who sojourns with you, and you shall love him like yourself, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” But just before all those, and many others, it is written that when “when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the corner of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the lord am your God.”

Other commandments may these days seem more self-evident, but in an agrarian society, those words amounted to a tax, a tax to help alleviate the pain that comes with poverty. Does our largely urban setting render the words irrelevant? Do they apply any less than, say, treating the sojourner as we treat the native?

And so these words, too, come now to new life.

And beyond words, beyond language, there is a sort of meta benefit to the work we do. In MAZON’s earliest days, we were often asked what business it is of the Jews as Jews to be engaged in such matters as hunger. Care about hunger? Give to Oxfam, give to Care; why “a Jewish response to hunger?”

Back then, I used to reply by sharing a letter we received one day, a letter that read, “Dear MAZON: The enclosed $90 check is in memory of my brother, Michael Mittleman, whose last known communication was a letter smuggled out of Buchenwald, addressed to a former neighbor of his, a Christian baker, begging for a loaf of bread because my brother was starving. It gives me immense satisfaction to do for my neighbors, wherever they are . . . . what no one did for my brother.”

You may have thought, or just wished, that the closing words would be different, that the writer of the letter would have written, “to do for my neighbors, wherever they are, what that Christian baker did do for my brother.” That was not to be, and the lesson thereby learned is that precisely because we know what it is to have all backs turned against us, we insist that we will never turn our backs on others, not ever. More than that: we will turn our face to them, we will reach out our hand to them, we will not wait for them to beg for bread but we will step forward to share our bread with them.

By now, I am pleased to say, the question of why a specifically Jewish response to hunger is appropriate rarely arises; MAZON’s success has, I think, been a persuasive response to that question. It is as if we, along with others of kindred concern, have in the course of tikunning the olam, of mending the broken world, also served to remind the Jewish people who we are and what we are about.

Who are we, and what are we about?

We are people of memory and of dreams.

What do we remember? If we are lucky, we remember the smell of our grandmother’s chicken soup, or perhaps our great grandmother’s; and perhaps we remember the sound of yiddish and other such homey things.

If we are wise as well as lucky, we go beyond the intimate, the familial, we share the great collective memories that reach back to avadim hayinu, to the days of our enslavement, to the Exodus, to Sinai, to the churban, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, not once but twice, to the centuries of oppression, the pogroms, the sho’a, the Holocaust, as also Israel’s birth, all memories accessible to anyone, there to be internalized, become part of our own intimate identity.

But there is one more thing we remember, perhaps the most important of all: we remember tomorrow. We remember the tomorrow we have been promised and that we yearn to experience. That tomorrow is not just a dream, even though we are a people of dreamers; it is a promise. It is that promise that warrants the effort, that is the surest stimulus package for Jewish identity and Jewish passion.

Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet, in a poem called Double Take, writes of the day that is to come “when hope and history rhyme.” The promise of that day is, for us, not a promise from the outside in; it is a promise from the inside out. It is our promise. And the way to understand exactly what that means requires that I tell you now, as I conclude, the greatest secret there is. It is, of course, the date of the messiah’s coming.

How can I know so mysterious a thing? Actually, I know it because Franz Kafka wrote a parable called “The Coming of the Messiah,” in which he said that the messiah would come “not on the last day, but on the very last.”

At first blush, that sounds like Kafka – too cryptic to make usable sense. But I think I understand what Kafka was trying to say, and it is, in any case, what I say: imagine that right here, right now, the door opens and the messiah enters and announces his arrival. I needn’t point out that many, if not all of us, would react somewhat skeptically, perhaps even dial 911 and ask for an ambulance. But imagine with me that somehow or another, the messiah quickly establishes his bona fides; he is, if you’ll indulge me, the real McCoy. As soon as we recognize that, some of us will doubtless applaud; others will weep tears of joy, the best tears there are. But soon, very soon, someone will for sure ask the exceedingly painful question, “Where have you been? What has taken you so long?”

To that question, the messiah has no answer. He himself is filled with shame at how long he has tarried; he is covered with blood that will not wash off.

No, the messiah cannot stand against that question. He wants to arrive quietly, perhaps even anonymously, stealing into the room without anyone noticing his arrival.

When can that happen? That can happen not on the last day, but on the very last – the day after the messianic era has begun.

You want the messiah? Then render his coming irrelevant, bring on the messianic era. And is that not precisely what impels MAZON, and why we here have gathered to celebrate MAZON’s first 25 years?

Thank you for coming; thank you for remembering the promise; thank you for yesterday, and thank you for today, and thank you, thank you, for tomorrow.

(c) Copyright 2010 Leonard Fein