March 7, 2013

Just a Little Comfort Food is All I Need

The woman in the next aisle had eaten her hamentashen before she got to the cashier!

I live in both a very Jewish and a very Latino suburb of DC. It’s an interesting mix: wonderful ethnic restaurants and a multicultural place for my multicultural family.

Last night I paid an inaugural visit to our new kosher supermarket. It recently opened in a space previously inhabited by one of the grocery chains. I’ve been a bit outta sorts of late (nothing major) but suddenly I felt right at home. Now, I’m not a religious Jew. Not even close (okay, except for my obligatory attendance at Kol Nidre services every Yom Kipper—I like to hedge my bets). But, I find there’s something deeply comforting about being around other Jews. I really can’t explain it. It’s not like I attend synagogue. And I certainly don’t agree with orthodoxy or blind support for Israel. But seeing men walking to schul with their wide-brimmed fur hats and Orthodox women, hair covered and pushing a stroller, all set for Shabbat, is simply comforting. I was surprised. But the feeling came from down deep.

The fruit and veggie guy was restocking (and wearing a yarmelke). I noticed that the plastic bags for your vegetables were the same horrible ones the last market had. They are simply impossible to open. I had mentioned this to the prior big chain manager with no success. So, of course, I approached this new guy. Why not? It was a new regime. He immediately said “I KNOW! They’re horrible. I hate them too. We are getting new ones.” Ahh, so comforting. There’s nothing like a Jew agreeing with another Jew. (Of course, there’s also nothing like a Jew disagreeing with another Jew too, but more on that in a minute.)

I had a short list of things to get. The place looks virtually the same as it did when it was a regular grocery store. But as I went up and down the aisles I noticed a few things were different. Where was my Progresso Soup?? And when I went to get cat food, there was a miniscule selection of Bella’s preferred brand.

Just then another clerk walked by asking if I needed help. “Yes,” I said. “I think you need a greater selection of Fancy Feast.” “No problem,” he said. Feeling very good, I went on: “And where’s my Progresso Soup?” He grimaced and said “Sorry, it’s not kosher.” Ah, I remembered. I’m in a kosher grocery store. The store looked so “normal” I’d forgotten. “So, is Fancy Feast cat food kosher?” “Cat and dog food doesn’t have to be kosher,” he replied. Oh. This Jew learns something new every day.

Now, there’s a gray side to my Jewish connection: it’s the religious side. While there’s room for contemporary thought within the religion as a whole, the Orthodox have a narrower range of acceptance. Those Orthodox women I mentioned above? They are sequestered in separate sections of the synagogue. And then there are the “Ultra Orthodox.” Last year religious extremists attacked Jewish women who were thought to be dressing immodestly.

A crowd of ultra-Orthodox men jumped on 27-year-old Natali Mashiah’s car in the Haredi Ramat Beit Shemet Bet neighborhood, she said. Members of the crowd smashed her car windows and punctured her four tires before spilling bleach on the inside of her car, said the Beit Shemesh resident, adding that she believed the men were going to set her on fire. As she fled the car, she said she was hit on the head by a rock thrown from very close range.


In the land of orthodoxy, men are the rulers. So it is written.

Just this week, New York Times Op-Ed columnist, David Brooks, also took a look into a local kosher market in Brooklyn. The Orthodox, Brooks writes, seem, on the surface, quite modern as they place their groceries into their minivans. However, he says, they represent a counterculture. My decision to be a secular Jew, to mix and match parts of my culture and religion, is a choice I’ve made. To the Orthodox “obligations precede choices.”

As I was checking out I was thinking about this as I loaded my groceries onto the belt. An elderly woman in the next checkout line was saying to the cashier, “I bought three hamentaschen but they were so good I ate them all.” Her words and intonation: so, so, comforting. “Bubbe? Grandma?” As I reached for one of those rubber dividers used to separate your groceries from the next person’s in line, I read the ad printed on it: “Why don’t you have gefilte fish for supper tonight?” Suddenly, I was in my bubbe’s house. It felt good to be Jewish. And that was a choice I happily embraced.

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