By Samara Cogan I have discovered some important and profound things about my secular Jewish identity in the most unlikely place: the produce department. It helps that I spend a lot of my time there; I work in a grocery store cutting fruit. Part of what makes working there so special is being able to help shoppers during Jewish holidays. I live and work in a highly Jewish populated area, and our produce department tends to be busier than most around Rosh Hashanah and Passover. Most people come in knowing exactly what they are looking for. Potatoes, apples, carrots, and celery (already popular items) fly off of our tables faster than we can refill them.
However, occasionally there is a shopper who comes in with only a vague idea of what they need for the honey-dipping New Year tradition or the Seder plate. Perhaps they have Jewish friends and they want to bring a side dish to their meal. Maybe they just married into the “tribe” and they want to impress their in-laws. Whatever the case may be, they need help. And as fate would have it (as the only Jewish person working in my department), they need my help.
Last year, a woman walked into the produce department, list in hand, and asked my coworker for “chazeret.” He said he didn’t think we carried it, but he would go look in the back. My coworker immediately came to find me and said, “I’m not trying to be offensive, but you’re Jewish, right? Somebody just asked me for something I can’t even pronounce.” Together, we eventually sussed out what she needed (bitter herbs), gave her some options (horseradish, romaine, celery, parsley), and sent her on her way. It was then that I realized that I held a unique position in my department: the go-to Jew. Part of my job, in my mind at least, was to become as knowledgeable as I could about the produce items that feature heavily in Jewish traditions, especially around the holidays. Not only was I helping our customers, but I was helping to demystify the Jewish holidays for my non-Jewish coworkers. I don’t claim to know everything, particularly about Sephardic Jewish cuisine, but I am learning.