Contemplating Hunger

The country's 60th year, it has been decided, will be the Year of the Child. Children are a source of joy, even sad children.

There is no day more suitable for studying the subject of hunger than Yom Kippur. Research and surveys show that the number of people who fast has increased in recent years. People say a public fast has turned into an individual fast, one a private person takes upon himself not particularly to vex his soul but rather to torture his body.

Yom Kippur is an ideal day for purifying the body and making it more shapely. And, in this way, a virtue is turned around by devoted weight watchers so a diet is observed in the spirit of the times, and atonement is paid for sins in the spirit of religion. Two fashionable ends for one fast.

Yom Kippur is a relatively easy fast day for those who have plenty of food, who every other day of the year are troubled by their bodily fluids and flesh. On this holy day, they taste the taste of hunger after making the appropriate gestures of charity on television in an attempt to ward off their fate. The gates of the temples of fitness, of the spas and the massage rooms, are shut on the Day of Judgment, while the gates of the synagogues open, where eastern-facing seats are sold to those who pay the most; the sanctity is also lessened.

It is only natural that as Yom Kippur approaches, the debate renews here over the number of hungry souls. If, once upon a time, one hungry little girl from Beit She'an was able to shake up the country, today there are tens of thousands of children in distress knocking at the gates. In the past few days, a confrontation reared again between the Latet ("to give) organization and the government that takes away. The former claims a million children go hungry here, the latter says there has never been such a thing. And the prime minister says he has never seen a small child who was abandoned. This is yet another foolish argument, about as effective as a breeze too light to stir a leaf.

Some 12 years ago, in the town of Goma on the Rwanda-Zaire (Congo) border, I lifted up a child, about 6 years old, who had fainted from hunger. He was lying under a bush and suffering from cholera; he was about to die. His body had a terrible stench from diarrhea and vomiting, and his belly was swollen like a barrel. I decided to call him Abe, at least temporarily. I tried to to wake him up, calling him by his new name - "Abe, Abe" - but he went on to breathe his last breaths. I personally have known youth and I have grown old, and there are no African children with swollen bellies in Israel nor even in the hungry camps of the Palestinian refugees. There are also no walking skeletons who keep going until they collapse, as in the Sahara. There are no such children here.

But there are, indeed, hundreds of thousands of children who are malnourished and who have too little to eat. A child can live by bread alone, he can fill his stomach with carbohydrates and grow fat and stupid, but his life will be anemic and without purpose; such food will break his hunger, but they will break his spirit, too.

Hunger is not merely for bread and basic foodstuffs. Those 800,000 children whom the state has placed below the poverty line are dying for other things, too, things that are considered luxuries. These children have the stubborn caprice that they should be the last generation that is cloned and the first to be set free. No longer genetic copies of the events of their parents' lives and those of their parents' parents and ancestors. If they are not given the first chance, which is also the last chance, they will suffer from crooked spines and weak bones, but in particular from chronic alienation - society is alienated from them and they will feel alienated from society. Those whose bellies have been satiated with unrealized promises are hungry for a portion of hope.

During the 10 days of penitence, I sat in a coffee shop and happened to get into a conversation with a waitress. She is a student who has completed her first year of studies but doubts she will continue next year. True, she worked all summer and saved her earnings, but she is not sure this sum will be sufficient for her studies and other expenses. As the day grew hotter, the place became less crowded, and the waiters sat down to eat, laughing and talking. And I saw she was hungry, hungry for another kind of life, not one of a la carte and a life of tips.

The main thing is not to feel bad, and not be ashamed at all, but to insist on being happy. That is why the minister of ceremonies places children at the top of our priorities. The country's 60th year, it has been decided, will be the Year of the Child. Children are a source of joy, even sad children.