Published in Mishpacha Magazine, 9 October 2013
Returning from a tour of Europe in the 1930s, the American humorist Will Rogers reported on the governments that had sprung up out of the chaos that followed World War I. Among his observations was this comment regarding the newly established Soviet Union: “In Russia, they got no income tax. But they also got no income.”
Given more time, Mr. Rogers might have had a chance to observe how government-imposed poverty affects the moral fabric of a country and its people.
I was able to witness those effects for myself, up close and personal, in 1993. That was the year my wife and I taught high school in Budapest, Hungary.
We had been warned what to expect, and had been told anecdotally of a soap factory in which dozens of workers colluded with management to dilute the soap formula by adding 3% water. The result was the production of an extra 30 bars of soap per thousand, which were divvied up among the employees to be sold on the black market.
The proletariat living in the communist bloc “workers’ paradise” were thereby able to supplement an annual income that supported them for only a fraction of the year. And if an average bar of soap lasted only 33 days instead of 34, who was going to notice?
Arriving after nine years in Israel, my wife and I discovered that the Talmudic classification of tinok she’nishba – a kidnapped child raised in a society of thieves (Shavuos 5a) – is far more than a theoretical construct. The children we met, who had grown up behind the Iron Curtain with little exposure to basic moral values, were frightening examples of their environment. An alarming percentage of them had raised lying, stealing, and cheating to the level of high art.
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