Soon after 9-11 last year I went to the grocery store around the corner from my house in Brooklyn to stock up on a few things. The Orthodox Muslim cashier, her face surrounded by a white scarf, dropped the change into my hand from a distance and without looking at me directly.
I wondered if it was because I was Jewish.
My religion was no secret to the people who worked there because in the five years that I’ve been coming by to pick up milk and hot dog rolls at this Palestinian-owned Met Food (in between our car trips to the big Shop Rite a few miles away) I’ve established a neighborly, warm relationship with the Arabic-speaking men who run the place and the women cashiers.
They used to have Hamas charity boxes (labeled for the Holy Land Foundation) by the registers. As much as I enjoyed my relationship with the Met Food folks, the boxes bothered me.
Late last summer, I asked Abdul if money from those boxes funded terrorism.
Ahmed is the owner with whom I have the most sense of connection. We are about the same age and he always greets me with a warm smile and a few words of conversation, often about the three children we each have. I know from our superficial conversations that he is a moderately religious Muslim who has a friendly interest in my life as a kosher-observing, moderately religious Jew.
He emphatically said no, that the money went for humanitarian aid, providing food for the poor. I asked if it also helped the families of suicide bombers. Without a pause, he said he didn’t think so.
Did I trust that he was giving me a sincere answer? Yes. Was I sure it was completely accurate? No, but I don’t think he was lying to me.
Those Holy Land Foundation donation boxes disappeared the day, last December, the FBI and Treasury Department seized the Texas-based organization’s assets. News accounts at the time made clear the tie between the money in those boxes and support of suicide bombers’ families.
But before that happened, the first time I went back to the grocery after the World Trade Centers tragedy, I asked Abdul to step aside to talk. My eyes filled with tears as I asked his views on what had happened. I wanted him to respond not as an Arab but as a mensch. With an upset face and vehement disavowal of such acts, he did.
Even so, tension knotted my stomach each time I went in to do some shopping for quite awhile. It was then that the cashier avoided my eyes, and I wondered if the crisis in Arab-Jewish relations was going to interfere even with my ability to pick up a cantaloupe or dozen eggs without stress.
Slowly, though, a feeling of normalcy returned to my shopping visits, which I continued in part because the store is so close to my house and in part as a statement, however small, of my basic belief in multiculturalism.
Not long ago, my heart lifted when I started noticing Israeli products sprinkled throughout the aisles: Osem cookies, Telma soup mix, canned kibbutz-made pickles, little blue-topped, white plastic storage boxes prominently labeled "Made in Israel." The other day I saw, in a freezer case, some kind of frozen bean in a bag labeled only in Arabic that also boasted a big OU.
I am certain that there is no concerted effort by Abdul and his co-owners to stock "Jewish" foods. In fact, it may not be that the number of items has increased but that my awareness of them has. And of course, large jars of sesame paste and marinated savories, all imported from Egypt and other Arab countries, still dominate the "exotic" food selections.
But seeing those kosher, made-in-Israel products stocked next to those imported from all over the Arab world makes me feel like there is hope right there on the shelves of my neighborhood grocery store.
The relationship with Abdul, his co-owners and all of their cashiers is easy again; warm and friendly in the way that makes me so glad to live in New York City.
Maybe that’s why, a few days before Rosh HaShanah, I found myself buying an extra-large jar of honey to use in my Rosh HaShanah dinner specialty, sweet Moroccan chicken. It was pretty pricey, as grocery items go, and I probably could have gotten it for a couple of dollars less at the Shop Rite my husband was planning to visit shortly, with its serious kosher food selection and Jewish holiday specials.
Standing with my hand on the jar, I mulled it over. I decided not to wait.
It felt like a way of affirming something I can’t quite name, something related to what I love most about living in my neighborhood. We live where we do because it’s a place where my son, who attends a Jewish day school, can have the best friend that he does, an African-American boy named Olatunde.
We adore living in a vibrantly eclectic neighborhood where my husband and son feel comfortable being among the only whites marching in the West Indian Carnival parade down Eastern Parkway on Labor Day. I love the fact that my son has Trinidadian and Rastafarian flags hanging next to the Israeli and American flags in his room, along with the placard of the late Lubavitcher rebbe he got while parading through the sect’s main synagogue last Simchat Torah.
I love that I ended up explaining the basics of Judaism to a quartet of inquisitive, fresh-faced Mormon missionaries who came by this week as I sat on our front stoop blowing bubbles with my toddler and preschooler daughters into the late summer evening.
And I am grateful to live in a place where a nice relationship with the Palestinians who own the neighborhood supermarket can refuel my hope about the potential of human relationships even in this terror-obsessed world.
There are no grand lessons here. I just take comfort in feeling that, even as headlines scream about imminent war with Iraq and anxiety gnaws at my stomach each time I go to my Times Square office, my little corner of Brooklyn is back to normal.