My first supermarket foray as an Israeli citizen, 15 years ago, was a frustrating flop.
It had not occurred to me that my Hebrew vocabulary was not sufficiently grocery friendly to understand what I was buying or to find what I needed.
Nor had I considered that while in ShopRite or Pathmark I knew average prices well enough to judge if an item was a bargain or a rip-off, I had no such frame of reference in Mister Zol, the name of the first supermarket we visited. Incidentally, “zol” means “cheap” — but I quickly discovered that Mister Zol wasn’t.
Furthermore, I was mentally converting every price from shekels to dollars. But that didn’t make sense at all, because any imported item costs at least twice what it costs in New Jersey, unless it’s on special. Domestic products are more or less equivalent and sometimes cheaper – especially in-season produce.
By the time I reached the checkout counter, I was sweating bullets. Yet my troubles were far from over. I could not understand the simple questions that the cashier threw at me: “Cartis moadon?” “Tashlumim?” “Mishloach?”
I would just shake my head no as a matter of course until I learned that cartis moadon is a club card, tashlumim is paying in installments, and mishloach means “delivery” (as in the Purim goodie baskets called “mishloach manot,” literally “delivering portions”).
Clearly, I needed some serious help.
I called Shachar, one of our new neighborhood friends, and asked if she could tutor me in Supermarket 101. Bless her heart, she agreed.
We spent two hours in the aisles as Shachar patiently taught me essential words such as “mutzarim” (ingredients) and “mivtzah” (special bargain, not be confused with “mitzvah”).
I learned that spinach is “tered” and parsley is “petrozilia” (not to be confused with the parsley lookalike coriander, “coosbara,” which is popular in Mideast cuisine). I learned that “kishoo” is squash and “kashyu” is cashew.
Shachar explained that when I saw a sign advertising “1+2” it did not mean “buy one, get two free” as I had hopefully assumed. Duh! Hebrew reads from right to left. It means “buy two, get one free.”
And she helped me apply for a cartis moadon, the club card entitling the bearer to discounts.
In time, I got the hang of it. I stopped converting prices into dollars in my head. I could tell a good buy from a rip-off, comprehend lists of ingredients, and answer the cashier’s questions.
The next step was learning to order online. This was a big help, since we don’t have a car and the apartment where we lived that first year was a fourth-floor walkup. Even though mishloach (delivery, remember?) is inexpensive, ordering online enabled me to skip the time-consuming trip altogether.
However, online grocery shopping in Hebrew was another learning curve. I not only had to know the name of each item but now I had to spell it correctly to receive search results.
Some items don’t translate neatly (sweet potato is “batata” and not the literal “tapuach adama matok”) while others aren’t translated but simply transliterated (like “gefilte fish”).
If an item from the online order is not available, the picker calls to explain your options. For a long time, those calls stressed me out because usually the pickers are Arabs and their Hebrew is heavily accented (although, I’m ashamed to admit, their vocabulary was much better than mine was in those first few years). Not infrequently, the communication snafu resulted in receiving something I’d had no intention of buying.
Fifteen years later, I can say with no small amount of pride that Israeli supermarket shopping in person or online is a breeze. Not only did the learning process greatly help me improve my Hebrew, but it also helped me understand Israeli culture. Because the supermarket is a microcosm of society at large, for better or worse.
One of Israelis’ favorite TV comedies is “Kupa Rashit” (rendered in English as “Cash Register”) about the stereotypical characters populating the stereotypical supermarket.
The surly cashier, the cowardly security guard, the short-fused customer, the young branch manager who tries her darndest not to offend employees for being religious or Arab or Russian or Ethiopian or what have you … they are all perfectly familiar to me at this point in our Israeli lives.
If I haven’t scared you off, I would encourage you to spend some time in an Israeli supermarket. It’s a wonderfully Jewish experience.
You’ll note the mezuzah on the door and the special displays geared to whichever Jewish holiday is coming up next. Kosher supermarkets in the United States do the same, of course, but their clientele is mainly Orthodox.
Here, no matter your denomination or lack of one, any supermarket you enter at this time of year has displays of honey (d’vash, or silan, which is date honey), apples (tapuchim), pomegranates (rimonim), and other items for the Rosh Hashanah table, because it’s a national holiday.
Wishing everyone a sweet, healthy, and peaceful new year. Shana tova!
Abigail Klein Leichman and her husband moved to the Jerusalem suburb of Ma’aleh Adumim in 2007, after 20 years in Teaneck. She is a correspondent for the Jewish Standard and the New Jersey Jewish News.