Every fall, we go apple picking. For my husband and me, it was one of our first dates, apple picking together in upstate New York. Over time, it has become a family outing, with each kid eating lots of fresh apples with the promise of applesauce and pie on the horizon. The timing is often perfect for the fall holidays, too.
This year, though, the pandemic has drastically increased unemployment. Many people are hungry. All around our (relatively well-off) neighbourhood, there are apple trees heavy with fruit. Here in Manitoba, frost is on the horizon. I have felt a huge pressure to put up food to share, and to pick more apples. This could be a long winter.
The first apple tree we helped pick was that of an elderly neighbour. She just lost her adult son, who was disabled. She was in mourning, terribly sad and frail looking, but also isolated by the pandemic. We all masked up immediately as she came out to greet us. Her smile was meaningful. Watching my kids cleaning up the fallen apples was important. She told us a visiting relative had made her pie. I got the sense she enjoyed that, as she is overwhelmed by the quantity of apples on the tree and the effort required to make anything from them for herself, these days.
A couple days later, I dropped off four 125-millilitre (four-ounce) canning jars of applesauce and a takeout container with two generous slices of apple pie. We canned pints of applesauce, made pie and apple chips for lunches. We still had way too many apples. We took a trip to the food bank and my husband donated 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of apples, more or less, at the self-serve donation bin. He also saw squash and other large amounts of produce from Winnipeg’s gardeners and I was relieved. It sounds like our mayor’s encouragement to citizens to grow more vegetables might have worked.
A couple weeks passed. We didn’t think we had more apple tree picking on our schedule as school approached. I continued studying Talmud as I had time. In Eruvin 29, there is a section that discusses what kinds of food should be given to the poor. The list is specific, including nuts, peaches, pomegranates and a citron. It stipulates that support for the poor should offer them dignity. In essence, poor people should have access to the same kinds of good foods as everyone else. Also, the food should be luxurious enough so that, if they were to sell it, it might be equivalent to two meals of something else. The food support should be dignified. It should offer poor people the same autonomy to choose, as anyone else might.
We received an email from another neighbour. Her apple tree had grown a lot of fruit this year. She still had a lot of apples left. Did we want to come?
We began to pick what looked like an untouched, heavily laden tree. It had so many low-hanging apples that my 9-year-old twins and I easily reached up to pick many with our hands. Again, we picked far more than we could use. The apples were so ripe though, that we had a lot of “drops.” These are the apples that fall when you jostle a branch even slightly – you just can’t catch them all.
We make the drops into applesauce or apple chips, but bruised apples have to be processed quickly. You don’t want to donate them to the food bank. I remembered this part of Eruvin, which reminds us that the best produce, not the bruised ones, should go to the hungry. Meanwhile, I tired of pleading with my boys to be careful, that they were wasting food. To them, it was just a bruised apple.
I tried to help them see it differently – to imagine it as the apple in a kid’s lunch. You’d be hungry without it. Days later, we are still processing bruised apples, but donated at least 100 more pounds of nice apples to the food bank. The tree’s owner asked us to come back again if we could manage it before the first frost.
At the end of Eruvin 29 and the beginning of the next page, Eruvin 30, there’s a reminder that we can’t allow the customary practices of the wealthy to be the ruling for everyone, including the poor. The way it’s explained is through the roasted meat that Persians eat (the wealthy are extravagant) and the fact that even a small scrap of fabric is valuable to the poor, so it matters if it should become impure or soiled.
During the pandemic, we’re all now wearing masks – small amounts of fabric that were previously considered waste. I made many kids’ masks from cotton shirting fabric I’d bought long ago, sold in small rectangles as discount samples. This experience is a reminder that is reinforced at this time of year – although we often live in a “land of plenty,” Yom Kippur helps us remember what it is to be hungry. Sukkot reminds us to value harvest. Scraps of fabric and apples make a difference. We can pick the apples before they fall, and offer others the same gorgeous produce that we take for granted.
In some ways, the Talmud seems ancient, but, thousands of years later, issues around disease, hunger and waste are still relevant. It’s great to have “roasted meat,” but even fabric scraps and bruised apples are important. It’s a Jewish thing to try to be grateful and value small things, even though we might have been tempted to waste them. We can use every fabric scrap and apple – and we should, because, as Rav Abaye notes, not everyone can afford lush roasted meat meals.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.