Exit Ramp: Suburban encounters on the eve of the New Year
When we left Manhattan for New Jersey nearly two decades ago, I did not return easily to what had been the Garden State setting of my childhood. I struggled to fall asleep at night amid the loud suburban silence and pined for everything I loved about city life — the cosmopolitan pulse, the palpable diversity, and the ready availability of ethnic ingredients at small markets within walking distance.
We moved in late June, and I was still adjusting to driving everywhere when our first post-urban Rosh HaShanah approached. In my search for something interesting to fulfill the custom of eating a new fruit during the holiday, I was delighted to discover an Asian supermarket just a few miles away.
From the rainbow of produce, much of which I’d never seen or sampled before, I selected what I now know to be a bitter melon. A woman who recognized that I was out of my element sidled over to rescue me.
“It’s good for the prostate,” she told me with a grandmotherly wink, “but it tastes terrible.” After I shared the details of my quest and something about the holiday, she took the melon from my hands and suggested we try dragon fruit instead.
I returned to that market annually in search of a new fruit in the lead-up to Rosh HaShanah. But I also came in the vain hope of again meeting the kind-hearted stranger who helped me exchange a bitter year for a sweet one, enhancing my observance of a holiday she’d known nothing about.
I remain grateful to her, and thinking about our encounter is a part of my New Year preparations, even though I switched to another Asian market closer to home. I go there often, sometimes on foot with my shopping cart, a nostalgic relic from my city days that I cling to, even as I’ve embraced suburban life. I come in search of the many ingredients under kosher supervision. Yet what I love most is the chance to enter a world beyond our shtetl, where the drama of overlapping cultures and languages unfolds in the aisles.
On a recent Sunday morning, I went to pick up a few things in an attempt to get a jump start on my holiday cooking and happened upon a cluster of motorcycles in the parking lot. The owners were scattered in matching leather jackets, each patched with an Israeli flag. One biker was posing in front of his Harley while another snapped a photo. They switched places as I approached.
The second rider greeted me. “Boker tov,” he said with a wide smile, recognizing me as a member of the tribe, I assume from my headscarf and skirt. I replied in kind, and we exchanged a few pleasantries before I entered the store.
I ambled between the rambutan and the lychees, selecting a new fruit for our Rosh HaShanah table. I’m always so amazed by the colorful and textural variety of the produce, all created for our enjoyment, that I have to stop myself from telling the other customers. I also picked up greens for a pot of chicken soup before heading outside.
The riders had made their way back to their bikes, shouting to one another in Hebrew over the noise of their engines. The same man who greeted me on the way in wished me a good day, then “l’hitraot.” What better timing, I thought, than the cusp of the New Year for a biker and a balabusta, Israeli and American Jews, to meet in the parking lot of a pan-Asian supermarket in the heart of suburbia? I beamed, thinking that God had surely enjoyed the interesting encounter, too.
It reminded me of a message Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks shared in a talk a few years ago at Rutgers University’s Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life. He encouraged us to allow what differentiates us to enlarge our experiences rather than diminish them, stressing how much “God loves diversity.” God may have cast us all from the same mold in His image, yet He made each of us unique.
As the bikers raced down the road, a part of me was tempted to fall in line behind them in my very un-Harley minivan. After all, individuality matters, but so does community and commonality. With that in mind, I was unwilling to let the moment go, choosing to ride astride them in the next lane until they disappeared out of sight. But I assure you, I’ll have my ears open to the sound of their engines next fall.