T Minus 40: Finding Zabar’s

I didn’t always make the best gefilte fish in town…

My husband is Jewish. Over the 19 years we’ve been together I’ve learned a lot about the culture and traditions of the Jewish people. During my brief stint in sales at The Jewish Museum shop in Manhattan I was praised for having a greater knowledge of Judaica than some of their Jewish employees (I took particular pride in that). When I first got together with Yves however, my knowledge was limited to what I’d learned in High School from performing in a production of Fiddler on the Roof.

When Yves’ dad invited me to a real live Passover seder in the spring of 1998 I was excited to participate, but also nervous as hell. I didn’t know how religious the family was and I’d heard that a traditional seder is long and involves speaking and singing in Hebrew. I wondered if I could handle it. I didn’t want to make any missteps, as this would be the first big holiday dinner I spent with Yves and his family. Religion was an afterthought when I was growing up. My Catholic paternal grandmother saw to it that I made my first communion, but once she moved to Florida, my Presbyterian mother let the Jesus ball drop.

I asked what I could bring, of course, and Yves’ dad, Michel sent along a recipe from The New York Times for a vegetable kugel. Great! I thought, I can handle a recipe. I didn’t know what the hell a kugel was or why a vegetable one was special, but I could follow simple instructions, so I would be fine.

I was spending the night with Yves on the upper west side the evening before the seder and figured I would prepare the kugel at his place. His kitchen was grown-up sized. Mine was tucked into a wall on the way to my bathroom. It had a half sized fridge and a tiny electric stove.

I cut out of work at 6pm and jumped on the 2 train from Times Square to head to the Food Emporium on Broadway at West 90th Street. I had my recipe in my bag and dug it out to review it for the first time on the train.

What the fuck is matzo meal? I thought to myself. There’s kosher margarine? What’s the difference? Maybe I can just use butter. No, it’s a religious holiday based on thousands of years of tradition, better not fuck it up.

I arrived at the upper west side Food Emporium, the store that was closest to Yves’ apartment, ready to make Passover my bitch. I gathered the vegetables from the list (this was long before I got picky about things like produce) and the other easy ingredients and then I headed to the dairy section to figure out this kosher margarine business. I found the margarine, but none of it was kosher. There was a pretty significant empty space next to the Land O’ Lakes, uh oh, they’re out. Shit.

Don’t panic, you’re doing great. You’ve got this. I gave myself a little pep talk. Determined to table my current dilemma and soldier on, I walked to the kosher section located at the front end of one of the middle aisles of the store. It looked like the place had been looted. I actually wondered for a second if there was a hurricane coming.

I had never prepared a holiday meal before. I’d never had to shop for one. I did not anticipate the dearth of goods I would encounter by leaving the Passover shopping until the night before. I was completely unaware that this holiday in particular required quite a lot of pre-preparation. The shelves held only what appeared to me to be rejected food stuff. A jar of borscht, pre-made gefilte fish and matzo ball soup mix. Soup mix. I knew that wouldn’t fly with Yves’ French foodie father.

My stomach began to tie itself in knots. I was already pretty sure the family didn’t approve of me as anything other than a rebound fling for him and now I was going to ruin Passover. A lump gathered in my throat. Why did I say I would do this? Why didn’t I just get a bottle of Manischewitz and call it a day? Shit! Worst shiksa girlfriend ever!!

As I was reaching the height of my internal freak-out a soft-spoken young woman approached me holding the box of soup mix. Have you tried this, she asked is it any good? 

That did it. All my crazy came out on this poor girl. I (sob) don’t (sob) know (sob). It’s my first (sob) Passover with (sob) my boyfriend’s (sob) family (sob). I’m supposed to (sob) make a kugel (sob) I don’t even know what a kugel is (sob) and they’re out of everything (big giant whiny sob). I’m not even Jewish!

She didn’t know what to say or do. I vaguely remember her apologizing before slowly backing away from my crazy ass and making a bee line for the door.

I pulled myself together and went to the customer service desk to inquire about the possibility of finding items “in the back”, like there was a hidden stash of kosher goods that the Emporium was holding back to drive up prices or something.

Sorry, all we have is what’s out. You should’ve come shopping a couple of days ago. Thanks. I’ll just hop in that time machine I keep in the garage around the corner. You might want to try Zabar’s. They have a bigger selection. Bless you random grocery clerk!

All I knew about Zabar’s was it’s location. I went there. It was instantly obvious that I was in THE place to be on the night before a major Jewish holiday. It was incredibly crowded, but magical. There was all manner of exotic kosher delicacies. I had no idea there were so many kinds of lox! I wandered around for a few minutes dumbfounded by the bounty that was before me. The place was packed and yet the shelves seemed to have an unending supply of matzo, macaroons and horseradish.

I fought my way through the crowd like a seasoned New Yorker.  I located the margarine and the matzo meal and I only had to elbow two or three old ladies to do it. By the time I got back to Yves’ apartment to cook the kugel I was cooked myself. I told him of my adventure and he laughed. I was not ready to see the humor in my struggle. He helped me prepare the vegetables as we drank some wine and listened to music. My Food Emporium freak out began to melt away as we enjoyed the simplicity of our domestic tasks.

The next night I brought my kugel to the seder and was brimming with pride as I handed it to Michel. I felt I had gone through a New Yorker’s rite of passage by surviving kosher shopping on the eve of Passover. I relayed the tale of my kugel adventure, being sure to really dramatize the whole event. By the time I got done telling it, that girl in the kosher aisle at Food Emporium was holding me in a heap on the floor as I wailed about my shiksa ineptitude.

Michel laughed at my tale and said, you know, you could have used butter, we’re really not all that kosher here, before turning to his Greek Orthodox wife to lead us through what would be a very concise and food-focused seder.

Huh. I probably should’ve asked. At least I found Zabar’s.






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