Tales of the Toaster Lady

Seeing the good in life is not only a fine quality, it’s a challenging feat.

Embed from Getty Images

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

A few months ago, I came across a new cashier in Gourmet Glatt. He was an average-looking  guy with average, black-rimmed glasses and of an average height and weight—your typical run-of-the-mill employee. I got to know him from our brief exchange by the register. Before scanning my items, he asked me for my account, “Number?” I had learned from previous experience that instead of saying “I don’t have a number,” to save time I should say “No number,” unless I wanted to be interrogated, as I’m holding my bag of Persian cucumbers, how it’s possible that I don’t have a cell phone. So that’s how our initial conversation went before all my items went into the shopping cart: Number? No number. Bags or boxes? Bags.

Little did I know that after I got through all my groceries and sidled my way down the lane to pay, all my food stuff was packed into one big box. So I looked at the guy and in a polite and earnest tone of voice, mentioned, “I said bags, not a box.” He said What? rather loudly, as he was jiggling to the music coming out of what I noticed was his left earbud. I said again, “I didn’t want a box.” He obviously heard me then because at that point he said, “Uh, Ma’am, you asked me for a box.” So I stopped for a second in time, thinking, Who’s right, the woman who can’t even carry a box who clearly asked for bags or the man who’s dancing while working and either assumed I wanted what all the other ladies (or men) before me had wanted or was a very bad lip reader. Getting frustrated at this point, I motioned to my belly and then at the heavily packed box, stating like a seasoned attorney, “There’s no way I could’ve asked for a box. I can’t even lift one.” He shrugged his average-looking shoulders and instructed the bagger in his native tongue to transfer all my groceries into bags. Sometimes food shopping and getting out of a store, as this small and meaningless encounter reminded me, is a lot more stressful than my actual flurry of cooking before a three-day yuntif. Either way, the cashier clearly wasn’t a bad guy, obviously just very distracted and in love with his music that day.

The next time I returned to Gourmet Glatt was the following week. In addition to my usual goal of going in and out of the store with a cart full of items in fifteen minutes, I was on another very particular mission. I had just ordered a Black and Decker toaster from Amazon, the old-fashioned kind with the two slots that go Ping! when your Wonder Bread is done. (Oh boy, could I wait for that Ping!) Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out if by dipping the toaster in the keilim Mikvah, I’d damage it. I finally came to the conclusion that the wire powering the toaster was just as deep as the slots, so it most likely would not work and definitely was not worth the twenty-five bucks to experiment. (It was not as if there was a legitimate reason I could fill out on the Amazon Refund Page: “Why are you returning the following item? Too small, Too expensive, or Religious reasons—please explain: I dunked it too far.”) So I decided on settling on the alternative to toiveling, which was, according to the Poskim, having a non-Jew acquire the item as his possession and then buying it back under Jewish ownership. I had done this once with my relative’s expensive Keurig and my school janitor and was successful in converting it into a kosher vessel.

At that moment in time, in the heart of bustling, frum Lakewood, I set off to search for a goy who had the halachic prerequisite of da’as, or the awareness and ability to understand the endeavor he was about to embark on. However, before I could arrive at my destination to find such an individual, I had to explain to myself several times over what was about to transpire, in order to explain it to someone else, which ultimately proved that I didn’t have much da’as myself. After a few rehearsals, though, I got it down pat, parked my car and headed into Gourmet Glatt.

Since I needed some chicken soup ingredients, I went straight to the produce aisle and began scanning the area for some good-looking candidates. I approached a jovial guy who was showering the dill in positive spirits—I got very good vibes to sell him my toaster—and proceeded to explain the predicament I was in, motioning to my useless bread crisper, telling him that I needed his help—this time something more than just finding fresh parsnips for me in the back. He looked confused and said “No English,” so I stupidly went to Google Translate because I don’t give up very easily. Alas, the long effort of typing up my rehearsed explanation was futile. (Sometimes it is faster to actually learn the language.) That is, he read my message and told me he’s not interested in buying a toaster. Alright. I slunk my shoulders a little lower this time and got my chicken and milk (which I wasn’t about to mix) and headed to the cashiers.

Analyzing the women behind the registers made me feel like an airport official at El-Al, who could tell with a concentrated glance which person is a likely threat from the way he bends his wrist and scans his watch. Similarly, with much less consequence, I used my trained eyes, from reading kids and parents in school and other contexts, to understand who had a good chance of having da’as so I could finally get out of there with a kosher toaster. It was almost lunch time and the thought of soggy bread with tuna just didn’t cut it for me. Maybe I was being a little chauvinist (if there is such a thing, do you call them self-hating women?), because I decided to go for the one man I saw. Once I pulled my cart into his lane, I quickly realized I had chosen the wrong person. Behind the conveyor belt stood the worker-slash-dancer who mistook my simple bag request for a box. Nevertheless, this was my last chance at getting a crispy sandwich before school, so I said to myself, What the heck, Este, without any real expletives and continued on to attempting the “kashering” process yet again, this time with much less hope. I explained to the cashier my situation that I needed to make my toaster kosher if he can please help me. All he had to do was take the toaster from my hands and lift it in the air—I think I actually forgot that little tidbit; how unfortunate after everything if my tuna sandwiches were treif from that day on—and say it’s his.

“Then,” I finished, “I give you a dollar and the toaster is no longer yours, it’s mine.” Then he smartly asked me, “Do I get to keep the dollar?” I said, “Yes, of course. It’s yours. I just paid you for it.” (Cheapest working toaster on the market.) So he shrugged his shoulders and smiled, either from considering the odds of getting a free buck from a total stranger or from sheer amusement at the craziness of religious people and this cockamamy lady. Ultimately he agreed to do it because hey, after all it was a win-win; there was nothing to lose. After I got the his consent and made sure he understood what to do, the cashier nodded his head, clearly having the da’as for this complex halachic procedure, in my laywoman’s eyes.

Once we completed the exchange, I left with grocery bags finally in hand, very proud of my accomplishment and relentlessness to get the job done. Chatting with the bagger in Spanish, probably about how strange that encounter was, the man happily pocketed the dollar. Now every time I go shopping at Gourmet Glatt and wind up on his line, he greets me with a familiar smile and says, “Hey, toaster lady!” The first time he said it, I told him with a serious face, “You know I won’t forget you,” and then with a smile, “You really helped me that day.” And that’s kind of how our bagging relationship budded.

One thing I’ve learned from the people around me and one of the most important things I teach my students—and they know it very well by now—is respect for others. My mother, in showing gratitude and decency to those around her, is a role model to me because she doesn’t even stinge on kindness to the UPS delivery man who picks up her business packages everyday or the Costco lady who checks her out on her weekly outing. All it takes is a “Hi, how are you? Thank you so much. Enjoy the amazing weather” to make a good impression on people and have them feel like you respect them, even in the most insignificant circumstances. After all, we’re taught to be a light onto the nations not only as a model for Jewish values and good behavior, in sanctifying HaShem’s name, but also as an exercise in gratitude and respect in developing ourselves as good people.

Interestingly, many Hebrew words are loosely translated into English, and many times they lose their original meaning. Take the words הכרת הטוב, for example, loosely translated as gratitude. Nowhere in this phrase do we see the root word הודאה. That is, hakaras hatov literally means “recognizing the good,” the definition of which not only positions the value of hakaras hatov to include thanking others for what they do for us but also includes seeing the good in them. In this light, the great Tannaic figure Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had once asked his students, What is the best path a person should stick to? (Pirkei Avos 2:9). Although he didn’t give the winning answer, Rabbi Eliezer said, “An ayin tovah,” a good eye, which is the foundation for most of our success and wellbeing as people, in minimizing the negative around us, searching for and understanding the good in every situation and person, instead. Echoing this belief, the most recent Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was always careful to use positive language, and if for instance, something was bad or evil, he taught his followers to say not good instead. He was a big believer in both the power of our perspective and the power of our words to the extent that he would often mirror his father’s teaching of positive imagery in the latter’s dictum, “Think good and it will be good.”

Being makir tov, at its root, is about recognizing the good parts about life and thinking optimistically. In this manner, it is amazing how the survivors of various tragic points in our history, such as the Shoah and modern-day horrors in Israel, kept their hope and persisted in their positive thoughts. In an old interview with Channel 13, twenty-one year old ex-hostage Mia Schem recounted that what kept her going during such a debilitating time was her constant repetition that everything’s okay and that soon she will be freed. In both a heartbreaking and tremendously powerful way, her “מחשבות חיוביות” as she put it, centered on repeatedly imagining the scene of her mother bathing her and lovingly combing her hair one day in the near future.

Schem’s interview with Chadashot not only highlights the psychological effect of positive thinking and ayin tovah in the most trying of circumstances, it also emphasizes another incredible innate character trait that we as a nation possess. The Gemara (Yevamos 79a) states that the Jewish people are רחמנים ,ביישנים, and גומלי חסד to the extent that in the words of the Rambam, if a member does not demonstrate one of these three values, it is legitimate to question his Jewish identity (Hilchos Issurei Bi’ah). Relating this to the interview: At the end of the thirty-minute clip, this unbelievably strong Franco-Israeli woman broke down for the first time. After recounting all the emotional and physical torture the civilian family and Hamas terrorists had put her through, and in spite of the claim that she still was not able to express feeling, the isolated instance at which Schem cried was when she mentioned those she had left behind. According to her account, there were five other captives in the tunnel where she had lived after her stay in the Gazan home. And when the black-masked terrorists pulled her aside five minutes before her release to tell her that she was going home—or rather, shouted, “Israel. Now!”—Schem didn’t know how to face the other victims and say goodbye. I had to apologize to them, she said with tears in her eyes, that I was being saved and not them. She looked directly into the camera with a deadened gaze, expressing, How could she just leave them like that? At that moment, she was no longer able to control her tears. This diamond in darkness, who went through an unfathomable hell of fifty-six days, was still unable to taste her freedom, in being bound by the captivity of leaving others behind. The words that she had uttered to them of I’m so sorry it’s me, not you haunted her til that day.

If not Mia Schem, who is the definition of Rachmanim, merciful ones? If not this young adult whose arm was severed and put in a plastic bag for three days—taunted by a whole family of evil-eyed adults and children—who cannot live it up for finally being free, then who in this world can epitomize the basic values of our identity, compassion and mercy? Of course, one would expect that any survivor of any trauma would feel guilty and worry about other victims, but Mia Schem’s story of extreme survival and perseverance, along with her ultimate heroinehood in the eyes of others, as well as the strength and beauty of all of our precious Kedoshim from the past, are undeniable symbols of who we strive to be as individuals: people of compassion, positive thinkers who can recognize hope and points of endurance even in the worst situations. When we try to embody these principles of mind in our own mundane lives, HaShem appreciates this to such an extent that He reward us and even middah k’neged middah, measure for measure. As Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, had exemplified behind the iron bars of Leningrad’s Bolshoy Dom: Think good and it will be good.

A prime example of HaShem recognizing and repaying our good deeds began in the centuries leading up to the story of our Exodus when Yosef was sold into Egypt. Potiphar, a wealthy man, bought Yosef from his Ishmaelite owners and entrusted the former with his household. Beautiful as he was, Yosef was constantly being approached by Potiphar’s wife to sleep with her. With his constant refusal and determination, Yosef earned himself many merits, especially when one day Eishes Potiphar grabbed him by his clothes in her one final attempt of seduction. Immediately, Yosef chose to run out of the house, leaving this evil woman with not only the clothing in her hands but the loud claim that he had come onto her. Consequently, Yosef was thrown into jail, and as one thing led to the next, he eventually became viceroy to King Paroh.

Because Yosef overcame sheer temptation—the likes of which the average man would give into after a woman eagerly threw herself at him everyday—and וינס החוצה, he fled outside, HaShem recognized his good deed and repaid him, measure for measure, many years later with the onset of Krias Yam Suf. This miracle was a major junction in ancient Jewish history, when the Red Sea also fled, as our antiquated song goes, הים ראה וינס. In this way, G-d measured Yosef’s hardship in overcoming his nature and was makir tov (recognized this good), similarly overcoming His own principles of the natural world and splitting the sea. This theme of merit and reward is particularly underscored by the passing of עצמות יוסף, or Yosef’s remains, through the parting of dry land, as Moshe ultimately pledged to take him out of the doom and darkness of Egypt and have him buried in the Land of Hope and Promise.

Ultimately, as we learn from an endless trove of Biblical stories and the few revealed insights into our own private lives, Hashem never forgets—the good, the bad, and the in-between—even years, decades and centuries later, as He is not bound by time or place. To reinforce this Divine pattern of reward, the Torah implements purposeful, precise wording: When he saw כראותה that his clothing remained in Eishes Potiphar’s hands, Yosef fled וינס outside (Bereishis 39:13); and so too, when it saw ראה the Egyptians approaching and the cornered Israelites in despair, the sea also fled וינס and uncovered a new path of freedom for them (Tehillim 114:3). That is, our positive actions and that of our ancestors pave the way for our  ultimate good in the future. All it takes is to think well and thank well and see the good in others, even if it’s just about finding da’as or a spark of hope in the least expected places and appreciating someone’s help.

All that is required to see the fruits of our labors is positive imagery and perseverance, as Yosef envisioned his father’s image to strengthen himself and do the right thing in one of the most difficult trials of his lifetime. On a similar note, what our modern-day Mia Schem claimed had helped her survive such an excruciating two months—that is, for her individual person in her unique account—was also her positive vision and determination to escape the clutches of evil, particularly her conjuring up the image of her strong, beloved mother. In a deeply enlightening way, the ironic reversal of accusations of Hamas in how their victims are hurting and destroying them mirrors Eishes Potiphar’s absurd exclamation to the public about Yosef after his final refusal and escape. Nobody, even the top Egyptian intellects, made any sense of this dangerous yet almost laughable distortion and stood up for what’s right, leaving Yosef to languish in a cold prison cell until salvation called, which is in itself another story of merit and reward.

From the story of Pesach alone, we can understand, from the outset, that HaShem recognizes the goodness in each and every one of His creations and that He eventually repays us, measure for measure, for our good eyes and motivated souls. But we can never know how far our thoughts and actions will take us and what doors of light, or oceans of redemption, they will open, until we commit them to reality.

About the Author
Este Stollman is a Yeshiva English teacher and has a Master of Arts in Jewish History from Touro Graduate School of Jewish Studies. She has a small sushi-making party business and lives in Lakewood, NJ with her husband and children.