What Are Our High Holidays Really All About?

There’s nothing unique about his appearance; average height, slight build, dressed in a worn T-shirt, old jeans and nondescript sneakers. I don’t recall exactly the first time I saw him, he’s just an employee at the local supermarket. Sometimes he’s stacking various grocery items on shelves, other times he works the checkout.

He usually has a somewhat defensive look on his face, his eyes border on anger, resentment. Clearly, he dislikes something about being here.

I find I’m getting used to employee’s such open displays of emotion at stores here in Tel Aviv. This came as somewhat of a cultural shock when I relocated to Israel from New York last year. America is a country with the slogan ‘The customer is always right’. If your work is a service to other humans, you put on your best manners and fake smile along with your uniform, suit or apron. You know how to take orders, flatter smoothly, apologize profusely. Even if in the back of your mind you are cursing out the individual before you send back their unsatisfactory steak, wishing the indecisive shopper that wasted your time they undergo severe torture, or hating the loud individual complaining about how slow your line is moving.

You smile and nod. Bite your tongue. You ask how they’re doing and wish them a great day, please come again! There are commissions, raises and promotions born from a happy customer’s feedback.  You can lose your job based on a bad one.

As a customer, you can give orders, ask advice. You are waited on, listened to, catered to. You tell the cab driver which street to take and he will. Or you can complain. Demand to speak with the manager. File a report with the BBB. Or most effectively, write a slanderous online review, damaging the reputation of the establishment, exposing the- GASP- ‘Horrible customer service! I’M TAKING MY BUSINESS ELSEWHERE!’

Tel Aviv couldn’t be more different. You feel lucky when an employee looks up from their iPhone went entering a store. Taxi drivers disregard your request for a specific route- Hey; they know better, how dare you advise them on how to do their job? Of course, there’s the sleazy attention that’s given from men making a pass at you while you survey their store’s wares. Generally, the attitude is- as customers, we’re being granted a favor if given consumer care, at all. I try to understand, see the lighter side. I guess if we’re all one nation, it makes it OK to behave like family? Not feel a need to impress each other, take our feelings out on each other? Humor helps me laugh this off. Sometimes.

On Tuesdays, the store has a ‘Market Special’, where they offer all fresh produce at half price. As a strict vegetarian, this is a significant discount from the core nutrition of my diet. The produce in Israel is remarkably attractive and delicious, yet the price of food in Tel Aviv is high and I’m all for a good deal. This results in an almost religious trip to stock up on fruit and vegetables weekly.

It is summertime and very hot the first Tuesday of the month of Av. I want to get to the store early, to purchase greener bananas, fresher tomatoes, precious mushrooms which I love and always run out of stock later in the day. I check my email, scan a newsletter about Av in Judaism, the upcoming fast of 9 Be’Av in regard to the temple conquered and destroyed due to the social divides and lack of human dignity towards each other. This gives me food for thought as I set out to get food for body.

After carefully selecting un-bruised, beautiful peaches and apples- I do this last so they remain as unmarred as possible- I go to the checkout, and begin gently unloading my rainbow of selected grocery for purchase.

He is behind the counter, with his usual annoyance and frown. I ignore his sullen demeanor, and cheerfully greet him. He ignores me completely in return. Oh, well- I have gotten used to this, and expect nothing different. True to the ‘Israeli’ reversal of customer-consumer roles, I’m the one who bites my tongue and smiles.

Then my smile fades. I watch with horror as my individually chosen deep-red nectarines are carelessly weighed and aggressively pushed aside, followed by the two perfectly ripened avocados- tossed like trash! My blood boils at the sight of those gorgeous, ridiculously expensive blackberries as they are squished in his hands when rung up. I find my voice- and how!

‘Careful!’ I command, angered by having wasted my time, by his attitude, by the unfairness of it all. ‘You’re damaging the fruit!’

He looks at me, frowns and rolls his eyes, then wordlessly continues scanning items with a gentler hand. Items are piling up, and when he’s done charging my Visa, he makes no attempt assisting me in bagging.

Still annoyed, I speak up again. “Why aren’t you helping me bag?”.

He shakes his head, as if pestered by a fly. “Wow, you lovvvvve complaining, huh”, he mutters under his breath, reluctantly begins to place items in plastic. He is baiting me, his face a defensive challenge.

 

“ISN’T THIS YOUR JOB?” I am about to yell- but I stop.

 

I watch him, I analyze. I suddenly feel pity towards this young man, his mediocre job. Who is he, where has he come from, been through? I feel I must say something, yet not about me, not out of anger. He will reject it. My brain spins through a list of insults, criticisms, comments. In my mind lingers the upcoming fast, 9 of Av- the power of human behavior, giving respect, showing kindness. I hesitate. I choose words to advice, simply and passionately, attempt to take my own emotions out of it.

 

I do not want to judge him. I want him to see himself through my eyes. I want to help.

 

“Look, I don’t know you personally. However, I believe you’re a good guy. I can definitely see you’re intelligent. But your attitude sucks.

I get this probably isn’t your ideal job. But this is your job, your work! OK, so you just work at a supermarket! So what? If you’re doing your job,  try to do it with a smile. Even if it isn’t you ideal profession, have some pride. Whatever you do, make an effort. You see so many people. You can make your customers have a good experience! Help them out! Do you realize you have that power? Not only for their sake-for your own. You represent yourself!! Do your best… the best you can do, whatever it is you’re doing. Care about it, be proud- it’s in you, in your heart- trust me, you’ll be much happier!”

I hesitate .“ I’d like to see you happier.”

I look him straight in the eye, unfaltering gaze. He stares at me, seeing me for the first time. I wait for a snarky comeback. He is silent.

 

Behind him, I catch sight of the store’s manager. He is looking at us, frowning. I feel bad- has he heard the exchange? Not wanting to cause trouble, I hastily grab my bags. I thank him firmly for his service; wish him a wonderful day with a real smile, meaning every word. He is still staring at me. I can’t read his expression. His face is still, but his eyes are on fire. I walk out with calculated speed. I can feel the burn of his gaze in the back of my head.

 

The following Tuesday, he isn’t there. Or the Tuesday after that.

 

I see the manager, who greets me with a silent nod. I am tempted to ask about him. I’m afraid perhaps the exchange caused him to be fired. Or quit. I feel bad. I replay what I said, but stand behind it. I wish him no harm, and hope I did not cause him the misfortune of losing his job.

A month passes. Every Tuesday, I look for him. Just to get a glimpse as I’m ripeness-rapping on a sweet melon. He is not there.

 

Five weeks after our exchange, I see him. He is different.

His wardrobe is neater. He wears a button down shirt with a collar, tucked into old but well-ironed denim. He got a haircut. Yet it his demeanor that has really changed. He is standing tall. His face has softened, he seems more present.

He sees me and his eyes light up. He comes over.

 

“Hey”, I say, tentatively, “Where have you been?”.

 

He tells me.

 

He comes from a poor family, his parents are Russian immigrants. They moved here for a better life. His mother is an alcoholic. His father worked one bad job after another, before getting diabetes. He left the army early to care for his father, angry his mother was incapable.

 

He has a girlfriend. She is pregnant. She doesn’t believe in abortion, and anyway, he loves her. He had wanted to go to the Open University. The pressure to earn a living for him and his girlfriend did not allow this, and he found this job instead, the best he could, lacking complete army service and any form of a degree, academic or formal training. He was embarrassed and resentful of being a supermarket boy, and sank into self-pity.

 

“I was rude to you but you did not get angry”, he says.

 

“What you said to me, you were right.

 

You spoke to ME, not the ‘super kid’. I realize I felt angry at the world, sorry for myself, helpless to change, afraid of the future. Your words echoed in my mind, I couldn’t sleep.

The next day, I decided to try a new attitude. To be the best ‘makolet’ employee, ever!

I greeted every customer with a smile, helped them and wished them a nice day. At first it felt forced, than became natural. People started talking to me, thanking me, treating me differently. Things started getting better.

 

My girlfriend and I stopped fighting so much. I found myself listening to her more, being patient. To my father, as well. Even my mother.

 

I started looking for ways I could help. When an elderly woman struggled with her groceries I took notice of the problem, I fixed the crooked wheel on her little cart.”

 

The woman was so grateful; she gave him a 50 shequel tip. The next day, he greeted a man, asking him how he may be of service. The man stopped, eyed him and asked him his name. He then let him serve him; show him where products were, answer questions.

Apparently, this man liked his attitude. Apparently, he was also the supermarket chain’s owner, who had a habit of randomly visiting his stores to see how they were being run, and what sort of staff he had. Being so impressed with this young man, the owner promoted him to a manager on the spot. The next day, he began his new position at another store with a nearly doubled salary. This was the reason for his absence.

 

‘You understand, this changed my life. I now have responsibilities. I manage things’, he says with unmasked pride. “It’s great. I am responsible for my parents. Myself. My customers.  With my new salary, I’m ready to be responsible for my girlfriend, and the baby we’re going to have. I finally asked her to marry me. We’re now planning our wedding”.

 

I am stunned. I don’t know what to say.

 

He turns to the girl at the checkout, tells her he’ll be right back.

“As my customer, I’d be honored if I could carry your bags home for you”.

I nod, speechless. He takes my bags. As we walk out of the store, he grins at me, beaming. I grin back. I realize, this is feels new. I have never experienced this. Genuine service with a genuine smile?

 

A priceless experience. I am amazed.

 

*

 

This time before the high holidays is a unique one. We are soul searching, reflecting. We are meant to cleanse ourselves spiritually.

This concept is amazing- for human nature, often propelled by greed and selfish desire, to try and understand how we can improve ourselves through a fresh start. While in New York, I was only reminded to envelope myself in this process while among Jewish family and friends. In Israel I’m constantly reminded- by events in holiday preparation, talks held for communities, inquiries as to where I’m planning to spend the days, or shared methods for easier fasting.

I have found in Tel Aviv, even the most secular of people have reverence for these holidays. Plenty of my friends have attested it is the only time of year they step foot in a synagogue. Yom Kippur in Israel is a spiritual experience even here in TA, a phenomenon being in a modern, metropolitan city where all stores are closed and traffic ceases for 24 hours. Families come together, stripped of the preparation of lavish meals and fancy clothing which are great focus on other holidays. Respect is shown towards the importance of the day. It seems to be the most uniting day for the Jewish people.

In preparation of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we’re meant to take an honest look at ourselves, our ethics and behavior towards each other, our personal spiritual growth. How can we become better people, closer to god, kinder to each other? We take note of our sins and wrongdoings; ask one another for forgiveness for any hurt we committed.

According to the Kabbalah, this gesture of asking forgiveness is not only about making an apology. The person hurt was meant to undergo that experience- we were chosen as the messenger. What we are asking for is to recognize our position. If we truly go through the four phases of repentance- recognition, regret, confessed remorse- the final phase is ‘kabala laatid’- acceptance for the future. Ask to be put in the same situation again- only this time, when faced with an opportunity to sin and harm another, behave correctly- with compassion, kindness, and do the right thing! This is proof of true change and bettering oneself- how we ACT, in the moment, without calculation but from our heart. It is an accurate glimpse of where we are spiritually, a reflection of the person you are ‘bein adam lechavero’.

Ask yourself- How do I need to change the way I treat others? Do I have a short temper, and yell a lot? Focus on remaining calm. Am I too judgmental of others, surprised when I realize the good within another I dismissed or formed wrong opinions about? Focus on being open minded- you never know what another has been through in life. Am I critical of others, even if trying to be constructive? Focus on your own flaws, so that you can develop ways of helping others from a pure place.

The Jewish religion is described as being ‘or lagoyim’- a light to the nations. Light exposes errors; light is good, kindness, love, mercy. We have the responsibility of being a role model. Not by our words, but our actions. People respond most to what they see. When you behave correctly in a difficult situation, instead of reacting with anger, cruelty, judgment, dishonesty or selfishness- you set an example to those around you to do the right thing, even if it’s more difficult. This way, you not only change yourself, you help shine the light on those around you as well. You better the world and yourself at the same time. This way of thinking improves society and builds up your true value as a good person.

No matter how much of a ‘religious’ person you consider yourself to be, use this time and these Holy Days to take honest stock of who you are. There are always flaws within us and society. Don’t just complain- be the change you want to see in the world! Behave with respect towards yourself, your family and friends, the environment- this is the true measure of a man.

Ask to be tested, to be put in difficult situations which give you clarity into yourself, and the opportunity to open your mind and heart towards making this world better for all of us. The beauty is, we are rewarded instantly. You feel happy. You realize the power you have to proactively, here and now, shift the amount of good in the world by being a positive effect.

This is difficult-especially at times when emotion clouds judgment. Had I yelled in the supermarket, no one around would blame me. In fact, the other customers would have supported my reaction. Instead, I practiced patience. This had a greater impact. It went further- this young man realized his own ability to be proactively positive. Ironically, by behaving more like a typical Israeli- speaking my mind aloud- true customer service was born, from real change and care.

I am now ‘Israeli’ myself- I’m involved.  I’m part of this country and its people. I feel I belong, in a personal way. I made it my own, connected with my inner Israeli-ness- developed an identity beyond just having a ‘teudat zehut’. I’m emotionally invested in Israel. It feels awesome. ‘Kibbutz galuyot’ in the making.  An American Oleh can help shed some light on local Israelis, and the way they are in the eyes of the world- tough, self-critical. Israel seems it’s always trying to prove its doing the ‘right thing’ within politics, military and society. Olim that leave the comfort of America are proof there’s something here in Israel worth the sacrifice. We can now provide a comfort, contribute our mentality- show that here, too, we all have the right to ‘the pursuit of happiness’.

With such a diverse population, it’s no wonder there are abundant disputes and disagreements. We fight for what we think is best for this special country.This diversity is as important and colorful as a fresh produce section, each item unique in appearance and traits.  By connecting to our common humane side, we can take true steps towards a united society, thus reversing what led to the destruction of the temple.

Improve yourself. Set an example. Focus on your own inner beauty, and how it contributes to our complex nation. You never know whose life you may change for the better, simply by behaving correctly.

 

That is the greatest service we can do for one another.