I was late getting the memo that we Jews had jumped aboard the insane food-hoarding train. When I finally elbowed my way into the closest kosher store last Friday, I was gobsmacked by the crowds, thicker than inside a Manhattan subway train at rush hour. Rumors were true: The meat shelves had been picked clean. No chicken! Not even a wing! Pre-Pesach shopping at its most manic looked like a day at the beach compared with this madhouse.
All I needed was a chicken, a few challah rolls and some salad fixings, usually an easy, one-stop shop errand. That Friday, foraging for food cost me three hours and rattled my nerves.
I bolted from the store and drove several miles to a larger market. While waiting to park (20 minutes!), I observed with alarm a couple hefting whole cases of meat into the trunk of their car. This was a bad omen. Inside the store, I tightly gripped my two reusable plastic shopping bags (because no carts were available) but was shocked at the panic buying. Were we at war? Was the food supply chain shutting down? What happened to social distancing? I realized that nothing is more contagious than hysteria — not even COVID-19.
People were filling carts with titanic mountains of meats, chickens, turkeys and briskets, enough to feed a survivalist family in Idaho till the End of Days. Sidling toward the fast-emptying shelves, I finally bagged three packages of cut chicken, frozen solid. Could I even defrost one of them in time for Shabbat?
Standing in a line 12 people deep, I coveted my neighbor’s chickens. This tiny, elderly woman presided over a cart that runneth over with tantalizingly fresh poultry, enough to last her through Pesach 2025. My frozen fowl was of indeterminate vintage, but beggars can’t be choosers. In vain, I struggled not to judge her irrational, seemingly selfish buying. She should live and be well.
Pre-Pesach shopping at its most manic looked like a day at the beach compared with this madhouse.
Sporting events may have been canceled for now but this was truly March Madness: ruthless competitive shopping, a survival of the fastest. Where was my Xanax when I needed it?
I had a lot of time to think while in line, and recalled a sad story that I had read in a Yiddish literature class titled “Essen Teg,” literally, “Eating Days,” about a yeshiva student who lived in such an impoverished community that he ate only one real dinner a week, as a guest in someone’s home. So many Jews have lived in poverty that is unimaginable to most of us today. They were grateful to have one chicken a week for Shabbat. Even today, many Jews live in quiet economic distress, grateful for weekly deliveries by Tomchei Shabbos of Shabbat food.
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe once said, “If you want to know what’s going on in the world, read the parsha.” Fittingly, the parsha of last week, Ki Tisa, echoed real-life events in several places. Most remarkably, when Moses appears to be late in returning with the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai (because the Jews below miscalculated the timing), instead of a little patience and prayer, they bolted full throttle into panic mode. With no Costco in the nearby desert where they might have bought out all the toilet paper, they tossed their gold jewelry to Aaron, convincing him to make the Golden Calf. Worshipping idols is never a good plan, and this doesn’t end well either. Finally, at the end of the parsha, when Moses descends from Mount Sinai for the second time with the second set of tablets, guess what he’s wearing? A mask. His face was so radiant from his meeting with God that it was too intense for the people. You know how often current events mesh with the parsha? A lot.
We don’t need to panic like our ancestors in the desert. May I ask my brethren to think and buy rationally? Can you please leave a few chickens for the rest of us? If you don’t, I saw what you bought and I know where you live. I might knock on your door next Thursday and ask, “Buddy, can you spare a chicken?”
Judy Gruen is the author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith.”