Oh Grocery Stores, Call Us Sometime to Talk About Jewish Food Culture

Food is a really important part of Jewish culture and religion. I mean, really important. Grocery stores, our main source of food, are place that we look to for filling our carts and tables with the traditional foods that help us mark Jewish time, and create festive meals. This might put a burden on some grocery stores that they are unequipped to handle. I don’t just want to complain (I will a little). I also want to propose a solution, which I will (a little).

The other night I was in a local chain grocery store, and what did I see as I walked in but a very neat and full food display for Hanukkah! Now, we do live in the part of Syracuse that has a large concentration of Jewish people, and three of the four synagogues in town are within a mile (if not across the street) from this particular location, so I was not surprised to see a food display. What did surprise me for a moment was what they had on the display. I know that most people know that Hanukkah is associated with latkes (potato pancakes for everyone else), topped with applesauce and sour cream. (Please do not start the Applesauce/Sour Cream debate. That is for another post.) So I was not surprised to see packages of latke mix and jars of apple sauce on the shelves. But also was able to imagine that just those two items might not have filled enough shelf space to make for an impressive display. They also had out the standard boxes of hanukkah candles, and some boxes and bags of gelt (chocolate coins, which is also another interesting topic). But that was also not enough. I imagine some very thoughtful and creative minds getting together to ask themselves: What else should we put on the shelves? What else do Jews eat on their holidays? What foods come to mind?

There is probably not a unit of time small enough to measure the gap between the question and the classic response: matzah. Oh yes! Nothing screams Jewish holiday food quite like matzah. After all, who else in the world eats matzah? (Answer: everyone, it is just a big water cracker. Ok, not “just,” but a really detailed water cracker.) Then they must have gone into the back to pull out anything that had the same company label on it: Manischewitz. They just put out everything that even looked remotely Jewish on to that display. And it looked like they were trying so hard to be awesome and thoughtful and creative.

Don’t get me wrong: I felt seen and appreciated. I just wish that they had said: Hey, I have an idea. There is a synagogue across the street (and there is). Let’s call them and ask them for some advice about what we should put out for Hanukkah. Maybe the Jewish people have some ideas about what they are looking for when they go shopping for food for Hanukkah. That would have been such a simple idea. We could have helped them pull of the shelves other items that might not have occurred to them, and for items that they might have been able to order that they would never have thought of: oils, olive oil, different vegetables for making contemporary versions of latkes, donuts, donut holes. I don’t know. We would have had some ideas. First and foremost: Take down the matzah. It’s just not the right season.

This remind me of the time in Louisville, KY, when I found a floor display for Passover at a local chain store there (God bless them), and there must have been an empty shelf or two. So they went looking for some more Jewish food. And do you know what totally awesome thing they found? He-brew! That’s right. Beer. A beverage that is made from a mixture of grain and water, which would be the one thing on Passover that we avoid like the plague. But they put it there, and it looked nice, if not completely ironic. The got the irony points, and again, should have called someone from the Jewish community to ask a few simple questions, like: Is beer a Passover food? What are some other Passover foods we might put on such a display? Simple questions that would have gone a long way to create a feeling of understanding in the grocery store.

Before Purim this year (or next year if we are looking at the secular date), I will give them a call and make some gentle suggestions. Might be worth picking up the phone.

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I’m Dreaming of a Mussar Hanukkah

Last month, many members of Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas had the privilege of learning from Rabbi Ira Stone, a congregational rabbi in Philadelphia and Rosh Yeshivah (Academy Head) of the Mussar Leadership of Philadelphia. For those who were not there, the weekend was not only intellectually stimulating, but also moved many people to think deeply about the process we go through as we read the Torah as a sacred text, what keeps us from doing more good in the world, and to consider incorporating a regular practice that helps us become better people into their lives. It is CBSCS’ goal to establish a Mussar group that meets regularly to support each other in this practice. (If you live in Syracuse, and are interested in becoming part of such a group, please contact me!)

The core of mussar practice is working one one’s soul-traits, called Tikkun Ha-Middot. Middot also means dimensions. Indeed, the inner world of a human mind/soul is multi-dimensional. A particular middah that comes to mind each December is Nedivut, which is Generosity. This month, like no other during the American calendar year, is one with seriously mixed messages. To quote the great comedic songwriter Tom Lehrer (the link goes to the original song on YouTube): “Angels we have heard on high, tell us to go out and buy!” Our surrounding culture tells us through every media channel possible that to show truly our love for each other, we must engage in a deeply money-centric gift giving process, one that so many people cannot afford to do, but do anyway. That is not the Jewish view of Generosity.

In the Jewish tradition, there are two kinds of giving. One is right from the heart, which is called “t’rumah,” which means “an elevated gift.” This comes from neither obligation nor out of guilt, but rather out of the pure generosity of the heart. The other kind is called “tzedakah,” which is obligated giving that is an expression of a commitment, whether or not the heart is moved to act. Contrary to the conventional rabbinic view of valuing giving out of a sense of commitment more highly, the Mussar approach is to “help us fulfill our potential to really live as the holy souls we are, and it is impossible to imagine that we will shine forth in holiness if we act only from a sense of obligation. The passion and the flowering of the heart must be so much more.” (Morinis, Everyday Holiness, p. 150)

The core nature of giving is not so that the received feels an obligation to the giver, nor that the giver feels personal satisfaction either in response to or even despite the feelings of the receiver. The essence of giving, of the quality of Nedivut, is that “by its nature, [it] draws closer the giver and the receiver, until ultimately there is neither ‘me’ nor ‘you,’ but only love.” (Morinis, Every Day, Holy Day, p. 64)

The paradigm for this level of Generosity is God, who needs nothing and yet creates the world with all of its abundance for the benefit of Creation. When we train ourselves to becomes givers, being generous becomes who and what we are, that is one way to walk in God’s paths.

So what might be a mussar practice to help train one to become more generous? Alan Morinis, in Every Day, Holy Day suggests four things.

  1. First, study a short piece of teaching on Nedivut, which could be the above piece or something else. This is a way to wake up the mind and body to the concepts around the middah.
  2. Second, to repeat a phrase over the course of the day or week as a mantra to keep this midday in the front of the mind. He suggests: The generous heart gives freely. The goal of this practice is to keep the middah in mind, so that when a situation comes up in which this middah is active, the chances of making a better choice are far greater.
  3. The third is a practice. Morinis suggests: Do three generous acts per day: one with your money, one with your time, and one with your caring. For me, this is key to subverting our money-centric culture, since it reminds both the giver and receiver that giving can take many forms, only one of which is through money. Money can be an important tool as an expression of love, but it can never be an expression of love all by itself.
  4. The fourth piece would be to spend a few minutes each day writing about one’s experience with Nedivut/Generosity that day. It does not have to be long, just a few sentences about how Generosity played in role that day. Think back to one or two moments during the day when the middah came up. What was your response to the moment? Did you have a defensive reaction to the moment? What the defense justified or was it a way to avoid? And so on. (This line of questions was taught to me by Rabbi Stone during his weekend in Syracuse. Many thanks to him!)

Give this a try for one week. It will literally take mere minutes out of anyone’s day, but doing this with conscious effort can help anyone become a more generous soul.