The end of September marks the passage of an important annual event in New York City, called Yom Kippur. If you are reading this and feeling perplexed, it is probably because you were not thrown forcibly into man or womanhood by four chanting relatives, from a rickety chair, after being paraded around a ballroom on their shoulders, at the impressionable age of 12 or 13. From that precarious height, many things may have become clear to you but alas, since you missed out on this and likely several other enchanting rites of passage, I will help you catch up.
Yom Kippur is the holiest of all days in the Hebrew Calendar. No, not “yummy kipper,” my British friends, although you’re welcome to celebrate the end of the day by ingesting them to your heart’s content. “YOME KEY-POOR” up North and something that sounds like “horsewhipper” or “mudskipper” below the Mason-Dixon line, but everywhere, “The Day of Atonement.” This marks the day when all members of the tribe of Judah strive for individual and collective purification by the practice of forgiveness of the sins of others and by sincere repentance for their own sins against God. Heavy stuff, right?
How does one prepare for this day-long spiritual journey in the great urban jungle that is New York City? By hunting, of course. You may think I jest. Be assured, I do not. NYC does not allow its citizens to carry guns, so armed with a steely stare, a fast stride, and several eco-friendly shopping satchels, we wake up at the crack of dawn and march off to do battle. The screech of metal against pavement and choruses of “F—You! You, F—ER!” heralds the arrival of the garbage truck fleet and therefore Dawn, on the streets of the city that never sleeps. Rising early to this charming alarm clock to beat the crowds, foregoing the niceties of coffee, and often even the morning toilette, we pound the pavement, get on our busses, our subways, into our yellow cabs, and converge on Mecca. Oh wait, did I say Mecca? I meant Zabar’s. The connotation is the same.
If you have never been to Zabars, I shall grace you with a brief history of the world’s premier purveyor of exotic culinary delights. The shop was founded in Brooklyn in 1934 by Louis Zabar, a Jew from the Ukraine, and eventually relocated to the Upper West Side, where it remains to this day, run by his three sons, and now their daughters. Disclosure: a few of them are my patients but I have received not a single free bagel in over 25 years.
On the morning of the eve of Yom Kippur, they open early, prepared with extra staff to deal with the onslaught of crazed lunatics about to descend like a cloud of locusts on a field of ripened wheat. Locusts have an eerily similar life cycle to that of the average New Yorker. They are very attractive solitary insects but when environmental conditions are just right, they can congregate into thick, mobile, ravenous swarms, decimating entire crops and causing much human misery. Each New Yorker, I mean, locust, can consume its body weight in food in just one day. This is called the gregarious phase. The advent of Yom Kippur is exactly what is meant by “the right environmental conditions:” the hoard is faced with an impending 24-hour fast and presented with an abundance of delicious food, all gathered into one central location: ZABAR’S.
At 9 am sharp on Friday, I had hoped to be among the first to pass through the gates of heaven. It was not to be. A grumpy crowd was already gathered, pitchforks in hand. The doors opened and the mass of humanity poured in, the neophytes grabbing carts and the seasoned veterans grasping for the handbaskets to facilitate their sprint towards the fish counter.
I decided that the hour-long wait for hand-sliced sable was just too much for me that day and swiped the last of the pre-sliced packages from the refrigerated case. The Fish Man behind the counter, whom I have known since I was 12 years old, and with whom I remain on a cautiously nameless basis to this very day, gave me a disappointed look and an imperceptible head shake. Clearly, I had committed the cardinal sin of buying something which did not require his personal handling and attention. You Catholics who think you hold the monopoly on guilt have never burned in the purgatory fire of, “THE WITHERING STARE OF THE FISH MAN.” There was nothing for it. I reluctantly released my death grip on the package and reached for a paper ticket, numbered 236. The devilish red light over the fish counter blinked, “27.” An unsuspecting millennial snatched the neatly wrapped sable before it even landed back in the refrigerated case. The Fish Man’s frown melted into something vaguely benevolent and he acknowledged me with a nod. Well, one less sin to atone for, I suppose.
Defeated, I turned my attention to the cream cheese, caviar, and whitefish salad. These are housed on temperature-controlled wall shelving across the aisle. Now, You, of the perpetually greener grasses of suburbia, may imagine an aisle to be something designed to allow two shoppers with grocery carts to comfortably skate past each other along a brightly lit and meticulously catalogued library of cans, jars, and boxes, in the silent oasis of a food warehouse taking up an acre of land. Imagine ten times the variety of delicious vittles packed into one fifth the space. Add to that over 7,000 shoppers PER DAY and now close your eyes and reimagine.
I wait. And Wait. AND WAIT. One by one, customers pick items off the shelves and move along. I inch closer to the prize. The woman in front of me has now blocked the entire wall with her food cart and is standing next to it, taking up, even more, space, leisurely perusing the shelf for supplies to feed what appears to be a formidable army. She picks up a container of whitefish salad and places it in her cart. Thinks for a few seconds and picks up another. Pause. One more. Asks no one in particular, “Do you think I should get a couple more or maybe some pickled herring?” The man waiting patiently next to me is getting nervous, as am I. What if she takes ALL the whitefish?! There should be some limit, for God’s sake! The gray-haired woman to my left rolls her eyes. The greedy and gluttonous woman continues to stare at cream cheeses, oblivious to the gathering storm around her. She muses out loud again, “Maybe chopped liver?” “GET THE CHOPPED LIVER!” Comes a simultaneous chorus from all around me.
In a feeble attempt to avoid a mass murder scene, in my best, polite but strict, unruly-child-management voice, I say, “Miss, could you please move your cart to the side so the rest of us can get to the shelves?”
To my horror, she turns around and says, “Dr. Kanevsky?! Hi! Happy New Year! Have you tried the Zabster Salad?”
Zabar’s customer accidentally shoots self while ordering bagel