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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776


Galilee Diary #286, May 21, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

Who is wealthy? He who is satisfied with what he has.

-Mishnah, Avot 4:1

Finally, in recent years, recycling has become fashionable in Israel. Our county government has placed bins in the parking lot of every community, for newspaper, cardboard, and plastic. And these are fairly common in towns and rural communities all over the country today – though there does not yet seem to be much opportunity for recycling metal or glass. Another welcome phenomenon in the past few years is second-hand shops for clothes and various housewares and appliances – what used to be relegated to the poor immigrants manning stalls in the flea markets of the big cities (Yafo's was the most famous – when we rented an unfurnished apartment in 1970, one trip to Yafo in a borrowed pickup truck enabled us to acquire all the furnishings and appliances we needed, for just a few dollars) has now become the province of the middle class matrons who volunteer at resale shops in upscale neighborhoods. Here at Shorashim we have a tradition, that goes back to our communal days, of a twice-yearly clothing exchange: for a few days tables are set up in the social hall, and everyone brings in all the clothes that no longer fit or that s/he can't look at anymore; they are laid out by size, and people are encouraged to take home anything they like. After years of this, there are certain people who can trace the history of certain garments through a whole succession of owners. And whatever is left at the end of three days is packed up and donated to a resale shop or distribution center.

There are a number of green organizations that work at lobbying local governments to set up recycling programs, and some communities are blessed with activists who have made their settlements models of sustainability. It is not hard to find green architects, nor to find individual suburbanites who have installed gray-water systems. On the other hand, the government's somewhat halfhearted attempt to require beverage container recycling through a 25 agorot deposit per bottle or can has not been very successful, as it is hard to find a store that will agree to take back the empties.

The irony of all this is that here we are living in a society whose modernization has been more recent and abrupt than that of North America. Here there are many not-so-old adults who remember bringing their own bottle to the hardware store to buy turpentine, or bringing their own baskets to the grocery store or market, or returning all bottles, or riding the bus, or drinking water from the tap. Not so long ago, Americans in Israel were struck by the primitive packaging: the baking powder in little paper envelopes; the fresh garlic, leaves attached; bulk spices – and pasta and rice and legumes, displayed in open sacks; the ubiquitous (and painful to carry when full) plastic market baskets.

Poor people still ride the bus, and buy bulk in the open air market (that now has a roof) – but they aspire to drive to the supermarket where they can park in the expansive lot, fill their carts with goods hermetically sealed in plastic and packed into dozens of plastic shopping bags at the checkout counter, and then drive on to the gym to walk on the treadmill, drinking water from plastic bottles transported across the country by truck. And at some point, if and when their aspirations are fulfilled, they might be somewhat troubled by the massive waste of resources their new lifestyle entails, and even encourage their children to participate in a youth group plastic-bottle-recycling project. Here, the transition did not take a few generations, as it did in North America; here, the jump from traditional sustainability to conspicuous consumption – and on to longing for the sustainability we just gave up – happened in just one generation. We know about the “good old days” of everyday conservation of resources not from third grade social studies (the pioneers), but from living memory. And I think that many of us who have watched the process from the perspective of the North American experience feel an acute frustration that we couldn't somehow have done it differently. If we're so smart, why didn't we see this coming?

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