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The Fish heard round the world
In 1965, by an odd
sequence of events, I came into possession of the canned food from a US
Army Field Passover Seder. Canned chicken soup, chocolate, canned matzoh
balls (a form of dumpling) and canned gefilte fish, a form of sweetened
fish that arrived in the US with Jewish immigrants from northern Europe.
It’s sort of a fish equivalent of hamburger.
I was studying that summer in
Europe, preparing for the foreign language exams for a Ph.D. degree.
Two months or so into the trip, I was studying German at the Institute
for Foreign Students at the University of Munich. I was living cheaply:
this was the days of “Europe on Five Dollars a Day” and my student
budget was $5 a day for room and board, although tuition and some other
expenses were on top of that. I did not eat lavishly.
Among the inexpensive entertainments
available, oddly enough, was grand opera. If you were willing to stand
in line for a few hours, the left over seats they sold cheaply to students
at the last minute were excellent.
Standing in that line I met a
United States soldier who was on a short temporary assignment in Munich.
As we talked, he said he’d been unable to find the local synagogue.
I had located it, with great difficulty, and told the soldier where it
was. He visited there, and got invited home to dinner on several Saturdays.
When he was leaving Munich, he found
he had some supplies he hadn’t needed and passed them on to me - some leftovers
from the Passover dinner his Army camp had eaten two months previously.
Some Jewish charity had packed a Passover dinner in cans for shipment to
isolated army bases overseas. I welcomed this taste of something
resembling “home cooking” after months away from home, especially the gefilte
My parents always told me that
when young one received many favors that it was hard or impossible to return
at the time, but that if one kept an eye out, the chance to pass the favor
along might appear years later. So we will now skip thirty
years or so.
I have a first cousin, Andrew Sisson,
who has spent his career working for the United States Agency for International
Development - AID, our foreign aid program. I’ve always been delighted
to have a family member in that field, as I feel proud that the United
States makes some investment, however small, in promoting peace.
I strongly feel that we should devote more than the vanishingly small part
of our budget (under one percent) that we do spend on nonmilitary
aid. My wife and I have in past years visited Andy and his
wife Karen (who is in the Foreign Service) in India and Malawi. But
recently, Andy has become a bit of an expert on trouble spots. They spent
several years working in Kosova, for example. He is now AID Regional Director
for East and Southern Africa, which includes places like Somalia, Burundi
and the Sudan.
Andy says the Kosova job wasn’t
as dangerous as I sometimes imagined it to be, but he wrote that
NATO forces did find two land mines right behind the AID and embassy compounds
where they lived and worked, on a dirt road where he regularly walked his
dog. He adds, “That was a somewhat unsettling experience.”
Since moving to Africa, he says he has
heard shelling a mile away while at a meeting in Bujumbura, the capital
of Burundi. His office is in Nairobi, and his programs are understaffed
right now for the very good reason that the United States has allowed staff
people to leave if they wish during the present high terrorism alert. He
is staying, and traveling as needed, but he does travel in an armored car.
Even in wartime, quite a few AID people are still out there “in the trenches,”
as it were, trying to build peace.
I recently asked Andy what
he’d done at Passover, and he reported that the Israeli Ambassador in Nairobi
had organized a Passover celebration. It had to be relocated at the last
minute, as Nairobi was under high alert for terrorist activities, but it
did take place.
However, Andy said, he did miss
American-style gefilte fish. Packaged gefilte fish is usually sold
in the United States in jars, but a hunt through several stores did turn
up one brand packaged in tin cans, and I’ve shipped a small box of canned
gefilte fish to Nairobi. I’m not sure that this odd shipment will
make it through customs and the security checkpoints, but past efforts
have usually worked, even if they may have puzzled the inspectors.
I don’t recall which charity
packaged that box containing the canned fish back in 1965, but I hope they
will somehow know that it was appreciated. I’ve long remembered their
kindness, and finally found a chance to pass the favor along.
Edward Ordman (c) 2003
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