Sunday, March 12, 2017

let my people go-go

I was born and raised Jewish. Growing up, most of my friends were Jewish. Now, in my social circles, that meant that while everyone else was celebrating Christmas, we screwed a fresh light bulb into the electric menorah with each new night of Chanukah. We had a box of matzo in our house around the time we saw commercials for Easter egg dye on television. We weren't particularly religious, but when one of my friends turned thirteen, he got a big party and bunch of money for reciting a memorized speech in Hebrew in front of a bunch of his relatives at synagogue. Aside from that, we were just like everyone else. We dressed the same. We ate the same food and, for the most part, we looked the same.

However, this did not make me immune to my share of discrimination. I experienced a good deal of antisemitism in my mostly gentile neighborhood. My Jewish friends and schoolmates all lived in a different, mostly Jewish neighborhood. The kids in my neighborhood never let me forget that I was Jewish. I was taunted, accosted, pushed, prodded and verbally abused. Even though, for the most part, like I said, I looked just like they did. I didn't dress any different. I didn't wear a traditional head covering or sport curly payis on the sides on my head. I even ate the same foods they did, except for the foods I didn't like, not for any religious dietary reasons.

When I was 20 years old, I met the woman who would become my wife. When she told me that she observed kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), I told her the only people I knew who kept kosher were in their 80s. Needless to say, I didn't win her over immediately. (It worked out, though.) As I got to know her and the family into which I would marry, I was introduced to the heretofore unfamiliar world of traditional Jews. I found myself witnessing — and even participating in — Shabbat prayers. When Spring rolled around, Passover became more than just a single box of matzo. My in-laws would be host to a full-blown seder, complete with ornate wine cups and long explanations of the origins of the holiday, and, of course, homemade matzo balls, gefilte fish — everything! At Chanukah, my future wife's mother shredded actual potatoes and made latkes right before my eyes! We attended synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but also on Simchat Torah, Purim and other holidays that I never heard of. All this prompted my mother — a woman whose maternal grandfather was a rabbi  — to ask if I was marrying into an Orthodox family. When I did marry, my wife maintained a kosher kitchen. (as a matter of fact, we still have a kosher kitchen!) Our son attended Jewish Day School through high school and loved knowing how knowledgeable he was about the history of his family's religious observances.

Recently, Mrs. P and I experienced a different sort of discrimination. This time, it was under the watchful and judgmental eye of our own people.

Last weekend, Mrs. Pincus and I took a drive to Lakewood, New Jersey, a community of 92,000 that sits about 60 miles east of Philadelphia. Lakewood, itself, is pretty unspectacular. It's got houses and apartment buildings and many varied businesses. But what makes Lakewood unique is its Jewish population. More than half of its population is comprised of Orthodox Jews. And they are quite visible. On a drive down Route 9, the township's main thoroughfare, you can see men in dark suits, white shirts and wide-brimmed black hats on nearly every corner. Women surrounded by hordes of clamoring children are close at hand. Because of neighborhood demands, Lakewood is home to a giant supermarket called Gourmet Glatt. An unbelievable operation, Gourmet Glatt is easily twice the size of  typical supermarket. In addition to aisles and aisles of grocery items, there is a huge fresh produce section along with an array of stations offering sushi, cold cuts, salads, entire prepared meals. And every single thing in the place is certified kosher. They stock many national brands that are already kosher (whether you knew it or not) along side lesser brands that are more familiar to the particular (and loyal) clientele, On the Sunday we were there, the place was jammed. It was, after all, the week before Purim, the holiday that commemorates the ancient Jews being persecuted by someone (probably). Purim tradition has children dressing up in costumes mimicking the main characters in the Purim story. Sweets are distributed and exchanged as part of the celebration. Gourmet Glatt sets aside an entire room filled with high factory shelving overflowing with candy treats and various colorful containers ready to fill and disburse. It is on par with what most secular stores put out for the Christmas season. Again, this area of the store was packed to near capacity, making the navigation of the aisles a bit tricky and accessibility of a shopping cart impossible.

As Mrs. P and I strolled the aisles of Gourmet Glatt — marveling at the sheer volume of product, the compelling displays and the swarming crowds of anxious shoppers — I got a strange, somewhat uncomfortable vibe. How could that be? I was among my people. Tribesmen. Mishpacha. Well, we were being watched by the other customers, eyed like we didn't belong, scrutinized like outsiders who had infiltrated their secret sanctuary. The stares were palpable. Mrs. Pincus was wearing jeans, a no-no among Orthodox women. I was sans a head covering and fringes from a prayer shawl were not visible at my waistline. Also, I was clean-shaven. Unfettered, we ignored the silent inspection as best we could.

My wife, who had been to this store several times before, searched the delicatessen section for a delicacy called kishke, a rich, savory appetizer made from matzo meal, schmaltz (chicken fat) and spices. (Hey, don't knock it. In my carnivore days, I couldn't get enough of this stuff.) She scanned the many refrigerated cases but came up empty. Not content, she approached a bearded fellow who was arranging some packaged meat in another cold case.

"Hi," she began, with a smile, "I was looking for packaged sliced kishke, but I didn't see any."

By the way, this is kishke.
The fellow placed his last package in the case and, with a friendly grin, replied, "I can check to see if we have some." He burst through a swinging door and soon returned with a Styrofoam tray upon which rested two ochre-colored disks of kishke. "Here's some," he said as he presented the tray to my wife.

"Is this pre-cooked?," she asked, remembering that the last batch she bought only required a quick warming in the microwave. Uncooked kishke, you see, needs a good hour or so in a hot oven before it can be eaten.

The bearded fellow pointed to the tray of kishke and looked at my wife. "Well, Jewish people usually heat this up and serve it with gravy."

An expression of horror flashed across Mrs. P's face. I saw it. I saw it immediately. The bearded fellow was explaining the customs of Jewish people to my wife — she of Jewish day school training, of traditional and observant upbringing, of Kosher kitchen keeping. But now she was gettin' schooled by a guy who already deemed her  — purely based on his own assessment  — as not Jewish.

She momentarily struggled to respond, but then slyly injected her response with the word "fleshig," a Yiddish word for "meat." The bearded fellow didn't bat an eye, figuring to himself, "Well, whaddaya know? The shiksa picked up some Yiddish." We took the package of kishke and continued our shopping, first annoyed, but then amused by the exchange.

We still were being watched and judged as we walked towards the checkout counters. Men in wide black hats, women in sheitels and scarves, droves of kids swarming around the candy displays, all dressed in frumpy drab clothing and all looking exactly the same. I whispered to Mrs. P, "If one of these kids wanders off and Mom calls 'Shlomo!,' two dozen boys will come running."

Then I realized that I was exhibiting the exact same type of discrimination that we just had thrust upon us.

Discrimination and prejudice is a curious thing. Just like opposable thumbs and the ability to reason, it's what makes us human.

I won't be going back to Lakewood anytime soon. But the next time Mrs. P has a craving for kishke, she is likely return.

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