Rice, beans, water: Brandeis kids, parents taste hunger

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As one woman ate rice and beans, she hungrily watched other parents and their children nearby stuffing themselves with lasagna, then brownies.

"What we're eating is healthier than what you're eating anyway," she said bitterly. "We're probably going to live longer than you."

Chimed in a hungry teen, "You're going to flop over from cheese-clogged arteries."

It could have been a scene from any city street, but the exchange really took place at the annual Hunger Banquet Monday of last week with some 50 parents and students from San Rafael's Brandeis Hillel Day School.

The banquet, held at nearby Congregation Rodef Sholom to benefit the international relief agency Oxfam, aimed to make participants "eat the way the world eats."

Each participant drew tickets to see how they would dine that night: Some ate like the 15 percent of the world that eats a full meal; some ate like the 25 percent that eats only rice and beans; others ate like the 60 percent that exists on only rice and water.

Every person drew his or her own ticket, so families got separated. Some children were torn from their parents' arms and sent to sit on the floor in the "relief camp" section of the auditorium where they would subsist on rice and water.

Dad, in the meantime, would sit at a proper table for the "15 percenters" and pig out on unlimited portions of lasagna, with a brownie for dessert.

"More lasagna, please!" called out Wally Wathen, one of the parents privileged to enjoy a real meal. The 15 percenters were the only ones who could have seconds.

"Would someone please get Mr. Wathen more lasagna?" said Steve Friedman, a Brandeis Judaic studies teacher and community service project coordinator who organized the event at the school.

The remaining 25 percent sat with their beans and rice in chairs without tables, facing the people eating the better meals.

The banquet, Friedman said, will hopefully whet the appetite of the students and parents toward tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

"I feel that the most important lesson that Judaism teaches is that we need to be involved in making the world a better place," Friedman said.

He underlined his message with a citation from the Talmud.

"If you encounter 100 people in need and 98 are frauds, you should give to everyone on the chance that you'll find the one that really needs it," he said.

The Hunger Banquet helped make that point by showing students how food gets divided in the modern world, and how unfair that is to people who get too little — and embarrassing to those who get too much.

"The people at the front table seemed happy but self-conscious because others were watching, especially when they served the brownies," one woman recounted after the meal.

Wathen agreed. The lasagna was "quite tasty," he said, but he felt "very guilty" eating it.

While Wathen was getting his second portion, most people were fighting for scraps. Some of the kids were begging food from the big table. Others illicitly took brownies from their parents. A few were lucky just to get their promised portion of rice and water.

"As the server ran out of rice, he gave people at the end of the line less," Leslie Louis, one of the rice-and-water parents, pointed out, "which is probably how it really happens."

The beans, by some accounts, needed seasoning. But this too is how it really happens in the larger world outside the Rodef Sholom social hall.

Brandeis Hillel graduate Danielle Bush, a 17-year-old senior at Marin Academy who spoke to the assembly about community service, said most of the food she ate while she performed volunteer work in Botswana two years ago was "kind of bland, actually."

After dinner, people gathered into discussion groups, families reunited, and everyone talked about hunger — a broad subject that included everything from helping the homeless, to conceivably sending the very old and the very young out into the wilderness during times of famine.

Friedman, meanwhile, tried to tap into activist impulses that might lead people to help end hunger.

"It all served to reinforce the value of getting involved," Friedman said.

Some may have inadvertently learned that if you beg and barter, you eat better. But most people came away determined to draw some higher moral.

"No, I didn't eat before I came," said Tamara Zamlitch, who was lucky enough, along with her son, to get both the rice and the beans. "And I won't eat when we get home."