Monday, May 11, 2009

In a Monsey Moment: Oy Vey!

Yesterday, while driving back from New Jersey after a fun and family filled weekend, Tuvia and I decided to stop in Monsey, NY, since we pass by it at least twice a month when we're schlepping back and forth between his former residence in NJ and our current abodes in Connecticut. The experience of Monsey is something I've always wondered about, after reading about it and hearing about it in blogs (both good and bad things, that is). So, at the spur of the moment, we pulled off and realized the hub of Monsey shopping and dining life wasn't that far off the highway.

Our first stop was Rockland Kosher, a gigantic supermarket in a building filled with a dozen other stores selling lingerie, clothing, books, and other necessities for the kosher home. There were Jews, garbed in black, white, navy blue and about 30 shades therein, rushing in and out of the building, pushing strollers, payess waving in the wind. I gave Tuvia his "emergency Crown Heights kippah" -- a black, velvet number that I keep in my purse in case of emergencies. I was wearing modest clothes, at least, until I stepped out of the car I felt like I was. A long peasant skirt that floated along the ground, a brown tank-top that covered most of the skin up to about a fist-lengths below my neck, topped with a black 3/4-length cardigan. I walked around the grocery store with my arm clutched across my chest, reaching over to my purse on my right shoulder, trying to cover the skin that did show. These women were wearing long black or navy skirts, and under their cardigans of similar varying shades of blue and black were tight, choking button-down shirts. The sheitels were perfect, the hair looked real, and few women actually had head coverings other than sheitels.

And every aisle we walked down, little Tzippies and Menachem Mendels were staring at me.

Tuvia didn't notice it, he said after I asked him, but people were looking. Here were me, in my very peasanty skirt, and Tuvia, in khakis and a polo shirt, shopping in the kosher supermarket surrounded by immas and abbas and bubbes and zaydes, and I was reminded of how it felt walking home in Mt. Pleasant in Washington D.C. where the Latino men slink out of the bars every five minutes whistling and cat calling. Except, this time, people were piercing and calling out with eyes and up-down looks, not words. Maybe I'm paranoid and it wasn't that bad, but I felt naked, I felt completely exposed, I felt like they could smell on me that I wasn't fluent in Yiddish or Hebrew and that Tuvia and I weren't married, sinners!

But the really fascinating thing about the Rockland Kosher experience was that from side to side, front to back, the entire store was filled with two things: Toys and Snacks. Every aisle we went through there were mommies pulling toys down for kids, and kids picking up bags of candy and chips and snacks. It seemed like nobody was buying real food, just Israeli treats and cheap plastic toys. The store had the Israeli and unique Kosher brands separated from the national brands, and more people were shopping the former than the latter. Is it a trust issue?

The best steal of the day, though, was a dozen eggs, which I purchased for only $1.30 or so. You can't find eggs that cheap anywhere. I don't care who you are. I remember when they used to put eggs on sale for $.99, and now you're lucky to get them for under $2.00. What a steal! I could have bought 20 dozen for that price. We checked out, thanks to a few Latino men working the counter, marveled at the in-house mikvah (in case you buy a pot or pan or something and want to tovel it instantly!), and schlepped off to look for dinner.

There were a few strip malls with some options, including a cafe, a barbecue joint, and the Purple Pear (a dairy restaurant), which I had heard about from friends, so we went there. Now, for those of you who haven't been to Monsey, the Purple Pear is probably the most "normal" place you'll find there. If you're a Modern Orthodox Jew or someone who is a little more metropolitan and likes to wear jeans with your tzitzit, then this place will feel comfortable. We walked in and there were some women in pants, men with ball caps, and a sushi chef shoved nicely in a nook in the corner. The restaurant is so jazzy, a dark red and black theme with a chalkboard menu that makes it feel very cosmopolitan, very bistro-like. I wanted to hijack the joint and move it back to Connecticut (did I mention the only kosher "restaurants" we have are a Dunkin Donuts and some Cold Stones and a Ben and Jerry's?). Instead, I ordered sushi and a coffee, Tuvia got an omelet some fries and a bagel (he was elated to see that "bagel" was the first option instead of the "add $1.50 for a bagel" option). It was so nice to go someplace kosher, to feel a real dining experience out where there are other people doing what you do, just more often. The service wasn't great, but better than what I expected at such a busy kosher place anyway.

As we pulled out of Monsey yesterday, I was a little saddened. On the one hand, I was excited to be leaving a place that seemed so far out of reach and so black and white (literally), but sad that all these options and neat stores and this frummie lifestyle were being left behind. I'd kill for a kosher coffee house, and I often joke with Tuvia about quitting my present path and opening a coffee shop/bookstore for the kosher crowd and anyone else willing to try my favorite pastry and coffee offerings. Coffee houses are home to me, and not having that option were you can nosh a scone and coffee while reading some Rashi drives me nuts. Someday, maybe, when I'm a retiree and rich?

Or maybe, just maybe, someday we'll move to Monsey, reopen the drive-in for classic films (except on Shabbos, of course) and start up a coffee shop/bookstore and take on the town. Livin' it up. Live it up.

But chances are that will never happen. What is for certain, however, is that Tuvia and I will make sure to stop in Monsey more often. Maybe look up some soon-to-move friends, eat at the Purple Pear, get some kosher pizza, and feel the flavor of the community so that those initial feelings of being eyed and examined by the black-and-white garbed as someone on the outside looking in. After all, I'm sure I was analyzing them as much as they were analyzing me. And in the end? We're all just Jews.