My family sat outside a museum, sharing snacks with some family friends. Their family’s preschooler offered us freeze-dried mangoes. My boys, great fans of fruit and veggies, had a mixed reaction to this novelty. As my twins ate their apples, I asked where they got these freeze-dried things.
“Oh,” our friend rolled her eyes. “I couldn’t live without Trader Joe’s.”
We had just returned from a trip to visit family in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C. This is where I grew up, but it has changed enormously. It’s much more crowded, busy and wealthy than it was when I was a kid. It’s true that if you brave the traffic, you can buy nearly anything in its stores. Sometimes, I’m dazzled by the huge number of choices there. It’s a wide array of fresh, prepared (and sometimes even healthy) food. It’s sometimes expensive, but choice isn’t limited.
We have plenty of choice in Winnipeg, and I’m especially happy in the summer here. Whenever I can make them, I eat salads every day (a habit courtesy of spending a year on kibbutz in Israel) and we eat lots of fresh, local foods. Even so, the choices available in a very big, affluent metropolitan area can be overwhelming. When I expressed my amazement to one of my brothers, he said that, of course, I could get anything if I just ordered it from Amazon.
I didn’t get into the details of Amazon’s smaller selection in Canada, the huge distances and smaller population in our country, or the expense of doing this. I just nodded and indicated that, if we needed mango, I’d just get a fresh one.
Why is this issue in a Jewish newspaper? Our liturgy, the prayers and blessings we say at services, include multiple ways to be grateful. We’re grateful for food, for being able to get up in the morning, for not being sick, for being who we are, for peace … the list is a long one. To be honest, most people seem to say these things by rote. However, if you do go through the prayers and think about them, it’s a series of pretty meaningful things.
Teaching kids to be grateful has offered me a chance to remember to be grateful, too. When my husband and I model a “thank you, Mommy or Daddy, for this nice meal you made,” my kids learn to say thank you, too.
There are the more rare prayers – for rainbows and seeing the queen – but there’s also often a chance to say the Shehechiyanu, which is for joyous occasions and new foods. One of my boys nearly crowed the Shehechiyanu on this trip as he sat at the dinner table with all his grandparents with him at once. Then, without prompting, both boys thanked their New York City relatives for driving to see them, too.
It’s remarkable how easy it is to forget to be grateful. We often take things for granted. For instance, isn’t it amazing to have accessible fresh food that one can afford? We don’t have to go far to find Canadians who are hungry, or who live in remote places and don’t have this option.
What about clean water? Electricity? Internet? Affordable housing? The list could go on. It is a Jewish thing to acknowledge gratitude for what we have. It’s also a Jewish thing to do our best to give to those less fortunate and who need help.
It’s said that travel is broadening – and it sure is, I ate a lot on our trip! It also helps us see our daily experiences and lives better. My parents’ neighbourhood in Virginia is full of “tear downs” – perfectly decent, smaller houses that are purchased, demolished and a new “custom” home built in its place. Sure, the 1950s-era home might be dated, but the constant building, improving and affluence of the area means that old farmland becomes subdivided and all the farm stands disappear. The newly built urban homes, within a short walk of where I grew up, start selling at more than $1 million US.
So, some might say, “What’s wrong with having more? How about spending money if you have it? Doesn’t everybody need a bigger house?” (Or freeze-dried mangoes?) Practising the traditional art of reciting these prayers, the ones that encourage gratitude, help us be better at thanking G-d, our families and our communities for what we have. Reciting a prayer might remind us that being able to buy a fresh mango is a pretty good thing on its own. Even further, being grateful for what we have received might encourage us to help others with less.
It’s true that some people have more money and, therefore, can afford to spend it – but how many bedrooms and bathrooms does your family really need? Wouldn’t it be better to spend some of it on helping others have one meal a day? Housing? Clean water? Educational opportunities?
Sometimes thinking “small” – about square footage or fancy foods, for instance – really means thinking big, and helping taking care of many more in the world who have a lot less.
Joanne Seiff, a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News, is the author of a new book, From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016. This collection of essays is available for digital download, or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her on joanneseiff.blogspot.com.