May 29, 2024
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May 29, 2024
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When I first moved to Israel, one of my aliyah-angel friends took me for my first grocery shopping trips to teach me the how-tos of market shopping in Israel. It might sound like an easy enough venture, but I promise you, it isn’t for the faint of heart. And, while I can now say that I am an Israeli shopping maven, it really took me some time to reach that noble status.

I quickly learned that there are two very important individuals in the Israeli market world. The first, is the “market-mossad-man,” as I have appropriately nicknamed him, who sits inevitably at the exit of every large grocery store. Perched high on top of his wooden stool, with one leg tucked under and the other leg anchoring him firmly to the ground, this man’s job is to look over your bill with a quick glance, make sure you haven’t swiped high-ticketed items like diapers and then release you into the wild with a scribble of his pen on your bill.

The second and arguably more important person is the zamboni cleaning man. Now having grown up in Canada and being married to a goalie, I am quite used to seeing zambonis.

On the ice rink.

With skates and goal posts.

Here in Israel the zamboni man’s job is to clean the floor until he can see his reflection crystal clear. What that really translates to: the zamboni must be in constant motion, cleaning the floor every second, of every minute, of every hour the store is open. Urban Israeli legend has it that he may still be there deep through the late-night hours while we are all sleeping comfortably in our warm beds; zigzagging his zamboni across the beige ceramic market tiles until they all shine like the top of the Chrysler building, or Azrieli towers.

Now I must warn you: The zamboni guy will appear out of nowhere and then reappear like the magi he is two seconds later in the next aisle, the exact same aisle that you are in. You may think he’s following you. That’s completely natural and understandable. I’m here to tell you…

That he is.

Following you, that is.

And there’s nothing you can do about it. So you might as well just go about your shopping and pray the two of you don’t collide over by the canned peas and carrots.

Although escaping the clutches of the Zeus of zambonis is an almost regular shopping occurrence, the most intimidating part of grocery shopping in Israel for me personally was the dairy section.

My first time shopping alone I stood stunned by the cheese aisle, completely overwhelmed. Hypnotized by the endless rows of soft cheeses and bricks of colorful cheddar, butters from different parts of the world, buckets of sour creams, flavored and unflavored yogurts and miles of every luscious pudding known to man. There were cream cheese spreads and containers that I thought were cream cheese spreads but turned out they were most definitely not (read: leben). And don’t get me started on the percentages of fat. All the cheeses in Israel are labeled with percentages like one is being tested in college statistics.

But the pièce de resistance of shopping intimidation for me was the dairy counter (cue dramatic music). I’ve never felt so incompetent as when I stood for the first time at the dairy counter to place my cheese order for the week. I needed to be able to order the types of cheese I wanted (from a myriad of selections, brands and variations), the weight of the cheese (in grams), the percentage of fat (in percentages obviously), the way I wanted it packaged (sliced or block). And I needed to do it in under six seconds. And in Hebrew. I would stand at the counter waiting for my number, repeating my order over and over to myself to make sure I had it just right and that I wouldn’t sound like I had just discovered cheese for the first time. Customers would look at me talking to myself, smile at me warily and carefully move their carts and young children away like I was Hannibal Lactaid. Now six years later I can proudly say that I have my cheese order down pat, and some extra chutzpah to ask for a taste of cheddar. And then some Brie…

Once you are ready for the cashier, after you have survived the near collisions with the zamboni cleaning guy, swept through the cheese aisle like the dairy goddess you are, filled up your shopping cart with all your essentials, flexed your deltoids trying to keep your all-wheel-drive wagon from careening into babies and the elderly, you are now ready for phase 2 of Israeli grocery shopping:

The Checkout.

Some friendly insight: When you are on the checkout line, take notice how the people in your line gradually disappear one by one. Before you know it, you are the only shopper left in your line, babysitting a sea of abandoned shopping carts. This is what locals like to refer to as “Shopping Time.” The unspoken law is that once your spot is secured in line with your shopping cart, one may now skip through the market like Pollyanna through a field of yellow daisies, plucking off the shelves all the many necessities you neglected to pick up on your initial shopping spree—five minutes prior.

One might think that once a customer reaches their turn at the conveyor belt that this might be a good time to, oh, I don’t know, maybe stay and put their items on said conveyor belt. You would be sadly mistaken. This is actually the exact time customers seem to go search around the store for dropped coupons (I kid you not), go and collect more food items (still not kidding) and possibly argue with everyone on line to leave them alone.

If chutzpah were an actual person it would be the person checking out of an Israeli grocery store.

Yet despite all the chaos and madness in Israeli groceries, something incredible happens nearly every time I go grocery shopping. Although there is chutzpah and pushiness unlike anywhere else I have shopped, there is also a communal sense of achdut (brotherhood) unlike anything I have experienced either in a Canadian or U.S grocery store. I’ve seen exhausted mothers have their fussy babies picked up and rocked by total strangers just giving them that little bit of respite and a smile that says, I know exactly how you feel. There is the weary soldier exhausted from her travels and trainings, having an elderly gentlemen kindly help pack her grocery bags. There is the father with a baby worn in a sling and a screaming toddler at his leg just trying to keep it together, realizing he left his wallet at home and the customer behind him, paying for all his groceries. No hesitation, no questions asked. I know of lone soldiers who have told me personally that they were unable to pay for their groceries and complete strangers stepped up, not only to pay their bill but added more items to their bags they they felt they were missing, plus a full Shabbat invitation. There are stories of a major grocery store letting hundreds of people leave for home during a blackout erev Shabbat, with wagons full of unpaid merchandise, so that they could make it home before sundown—on the verbal promise they would return Sunday morning to pay. And wouldn’t you know it, when Sunday rolled around, every customer came back to pay with personal handwritten lists of each item and its price. Every. Single. Customer.

Yes, I have seen an abandonment of proper rules and etiquette and sometimes sheer madness in Israel groceries. But, I also witness weekly the love, warmth and unconditional support our people have for each other, on a random Wednesday and when the chips are down. I’ve seen it firsthand over and over again standing with my full shopping cart by the gum and battery rack. And for that there is no price tag.

By Esti Rosen Snukal

Esti Rosen Snukal made aliyah with her husband and four sons from Teaneck. She is a volunteer project fundraiser for The Lone Soldier Center in Jerusalem. Esti is a contributer for The Jewish Link documenting family life as an olah chadasha. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Facebook.

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