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Caffé Sospeso

January 8, 2015 | by Emuna Braverman

This is a unique cup of coffee everyone should be having.

Standing in line in a coffee shop these days, you hear very complicated orders – 1 tall latté, half-caf with extra milk, a cappuccino with two shots and a little less foam, a large black coffee with extra room for milk and so on. I never could have imagined all the possible permutations – especially now that there is soy milk and almond milk and … I recently heard something new – a caffé sospeso, a suspended coffee.

No, it’s not coffee with cinnamon syrup or hazelnut or crème de menthe; it’s not even an actual coffee. It’s a paid receipt for a coffee, left with the barrista, to benefit an anonymous needy stranger. Wow!

Originating in Naples, Italy – where the locals know and love their coffee – it’s a way of giving back, a way of allowing the less fortunate to still experience this pleasure and participate in this societal ritual. It’s a little thing that, I imagine, really makes a difference.

Apparently this custom began during WWII and has been revived during recent economic difficulties. What a wonderful idea. There is something about that cup of coffee that makes you feel a mensch – and something about not being able to partake that makes you feel less than.

Like the ritual of leaving money in the meter for the next anonymous parker, the giver doesn’t have any contact with the recipient. The benefactor has no idea who the beneficiary is, just the knowledge that someone else has been helped due to his or her generosity.

And it doesn’t have to require a lot of money – whether it’s quarters (or a credit card swipe) in the meter or the purchase of a latté. But it could lift someone else’s spirits.

And it creates a whole community of givers. It sets the tone for the neighborhood. It creates caring and concern and thoughtfulness for others.

There are many stories in Jewish history of rabbis recognizing the depth of poverty of a particular petitioner by the questions asked – and responding to the bigger picture. If a congregant asked if milk could be substituted for the four glasses of wine at Passover time, an astute rabbi would recognize that this family couldn’t afford meat – and would give them charity in proportion to the need. I assume that a similar phenomenon may occur in Naples – and any other city that promotes caffé sospeso.

Once the town becomes aware of the need, once the people who pick up these receipts become real, then they are probably moved to help them in other ways as well – food drives, clothing drives and so on. I don’t know for sure; I only read about the coffee. But it makes sense.

It also makes sense that a people who is sensitive to this need in an individual and is willing to support it will support other needs as well.

Sometimes a person who is down and out only needs a smile. Sometimes they need a friend. Sometimes they need a bigger helping hand. But sometimes they just need a cup of coffee – and to feel like they are part of the community and not outside it.

I think it’s a beautiful idea. And the anonymity of giving fulfills the Jewish value of giving without embarrassing the recipient. It’s such an inexpensive and easy way to give someone a lift. And who knows how that lift will carry over to the rest of their day and to everyone they meet? And the giver gets a lift as well (not to mention all that injection of caffeine!). I’d like to try this idea here (if people don’t think I’m too weird). Who wants to get behind me in line at Coffee Bean tomorrow?

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