One Friday afternoon many years ago, as Philadelphia, PA bathed itself in 98 degrees of steam, sweat and stress, I went shopping in a local supermarket for my mother-in-law to prepare for Shabbat. That Saturday night, we would observe Tisha B’Av, the Jewish holiday recalling ancient Jerusalem’s destruction. As I walked into the store, grabbed a cart and stepped into the aisles, I stumbled into heksher — kosher food certification — hell.
I panicked when I noticed items on her shopping list that might only be available without acceptable kosher certification symbols, even though their ingredients were kosher. What might other, mostly Orthodox, Jewish shoppers think about me or say to me, a non-Orthodox Jew openly identified as religious, if they saw them in my cart? For many in the Orthodox community, proper certification is an indication of religious acceptability. Being caught with the wrong food would seal their verdict of my ritual incorrectness.
“Why are you perseverating about such nonsense?” I argued with myself. “Act like a grown up already and stop worrying about what other people think of you.” My perseverations won out, as I privately obsessed about passing for “religiously correct.” I wear a kippah, a religious head covering, and if I could just find the food brands on my list with acceptable symbols, I could gain some imagined nod of acceptance from Jews who I feared deep down were more authentic than me.
I strolled the aisles, furtively checking what I was supposed to buy, hoping desperately, childishly that I wouldn’t get caught. As a grown man who could think for himself, and who was an experienced religious leader, I knew better than to assume that a kosher food label made me more or less of a good Jew. So why was I feeling like a little boy, anxiously anticipating what “the right people” would do or say? I could pull off my kippah and dissolve my identity blissfully into the stocked shelves between the Campbell’s Pork-N-Beans and the kosher salt. I decided that doing this would feel even phonier to me than the label game I was playing. I pushed my cart out of the aisle and found a check-out line.
As if sent from heaven to test or to punish me, a young man with a kippah stood one aisle over from me, sporting the “look” of self-assured Orthodox yeshiva boys. He wore his kippah at an angle on his head, and he had on long pants instead of immodest cutoffs like the ones I was wearing. His sideburns were a telling symbol of his strict conformity to the Jewish legal prohibition against rounding the corners of one’s face with a razor. I felt increasingly naked, stupid, and angry. I began to prime myself, “OK, if he asks you about what’s in your cart, what are you going to say?”
Suddenly, I noticed his almost completely shaven face, an indication that he had been shaving during the nine days of communal mourning preceding Tisha B’Av. I imagined barking rabidly at him, “Any authentically religious Jew would follow the prohibition against shaving during the nine days as a way of mourning Jerusalem’s destruction! How dare you presume to tell me about what foods I buy? Look at you! You have one day’s growth on your face, on the second to last day before Tisha B’Av. Phony!” I railed against this poor guy inside my head despite the fact that I had no idea of who he was, what he thought, or if he even noticed my existence.
Right then, a woman walked up behind me and mumbled something that interrupted my internal monologue. I half turned to her and asked abrasively,
“Oh, forget it,” she muttered, backing off.
I turned away, pondering the major question of my existence at that moment: how to achieve religious legitimacy even if I didn’t buy food that had acceptable certification.
She interrupted my thinking again, “Would you mind if I go ahead of you on line? I only have two items.”
Already I hated this woman. I hated her whiny voice, her glassy eyed stare, and the way she looked. I cast another half-glance at her and responded, coldly and curtly, “The express line for two to twelve items is over there, this is a regular line.” I thought to myself, “I’m not letting her cut ahead of me. I got on the right line, so should she.”
My meanness and pettiness were matched at that moment by my total lack of common sense about supermarket etiquette. I heard her ask the cashier “Is this line exclusively for twelve items or more?”
“Of course not,” the cashier replied, “You can have as many or as few items on this line as you like.”
At that moment, I wasn’t sure if I felt more humiliated about being a jerk or being a fool. As the cashier rang up my items, the woman called to me with slight sarcasm, “Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of peace to you and yours.”
“U’Mevorakh, a blessed Shabbat to you as well,” I replied defiantly, and walked out.
In the parking lot, on my drive home, sitting in my in-laws’ den, I thought about what I had done, the young man, the woman and Tisha B’Av. I imagined myself in the famous talmudic story about how, many centuries ago, Jerusalem was burned down because of sinat chinam, causeless hatred between members of its Jewish community.
That night, my Shabbat dinner tasted a bit like ashes.