Give a man a fish, they say, and he will eat for a day. Teach him to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.
While my wife and I have served meals to the homeless at a local church, our charity has more often been of the “teach a man to fish” variety. But a few fish dinners recently at local churches have reminded me of several times when someone has, in fact, given me a fish. In the last months of the Soviet Union, my wife and I were in Ukraine. The group we traveled with spent a week each at teachers colleges in several cities. While we did some sightseeing, our main purpose was to meet with the students so they could practice their English.
As the sightseeing was led by Intourist (government) guides with whom we often disagreed, my wife and I on several occasions turned left when the rest of the group turned right, and set off on our own. One weekend in the port city of Kherson we boarded the wrong ferryboat on the Dneiper River, going we knew not where. On the ferry we were recognized by two young women, students at the college we were visiting. One of them was going to visit her parents at their “summerhouse,” a vegetable garden on a small island farther up the Dneiper. When the young lady understood that we had no destination in mind, she invited us along.
It was the sort of visit with a family one hopes for, and rarely gets, in a foreign country. Papa was an amateur photographer, and since the fastest film he could get locally was ASA 64, he was thrilled that we could leave him a few rolls of ASA 400 color film. Mother prided herself on her cooking, but had limited supplies, so they walked around the island and invited several other families to a potluck supper. The main course was sturgeon: Someone had caught one at least six feet long in the river. It was a gift of a fish that must have fed a few families for several days.
In 1988, my wife and I were teaching in the Faroe Islands, in the mid-Atlantic. On our first trip to the grocery store, we found no fish for sale. A teaching colleague explained that in an economy where almost every family is supported by fishing, there is no market for fresh fish: You catch your own or get one from a next-door neighbor. A few days later, he brought us a few large fish to keep us well supplied.
In 1965, I was studying German in Munich, Germany. Standing in line for the student tickets for the opera, I met a young American soldier who had been sent to Munich for just a week. An observant Jew, he had not been able to find the synagogue, and I was able to give him directions. (It was not conspicuous; I’d had to get directions from visiting American Mormon missionaries.) He arrived at the synagogue dressed in his best uniform and was, very politely, refused admission. For historical reasons, they said, no one in uniform was allowed in. He returned in civilian clothes and was treated very well, and invited to someone’s home to dinner.
When he left Munich, having had some meals with people from the synagogue, he gave me some canned kosher food he’d been carrying for emergencies – leftovers from a field Passover dinner packed for US military personnel by an American charity. Inside was a can of gefilte fish, a sort of seasoned fish ball that is to fish what a meatball is to beef. I was feeling homesick, and this old favorite really hit the spot.
My parents always told me that, when I was young, many people would do favors for me that I could not repay. But if I watched carefully, they added, I might pass the favor along to another someday.
A gift of canned gefilte fish seemed an improbable favor to return. But nearly 50 years later, I had a cousin who was working in Nairobi, Kenya, for the United States foreign aid program. He wanted to organize an American-style Passover Seder for his friends, but could not find American-style gefilte fish in Kenya. While it usually comes in glass bottles, I was able to locate some packed in cans, and I mailed a box of canned gefilte fish to him from Memphis, Tenn., via diplomatic pouch.
Give a man a fish, and he may find a way to give a fish to someone else. Even 50 years later.