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March 22, 2013 2:33 am

The New York Times Praising the Orthodox? How a Kosher Market Transformed Our Image

avatar by Abraham Banda

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Kosher for Passover food in the supermarket. Photo: wiki commons.

On Thursday, March 7th, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an op-ed column entitled “The Orthodox Surge” in which he shared his impressions of Pomegranate,  my landmark kosher marketplace in Brooklyn. He found in the store not just an impressive display of fine food, but a glimpse of the vibrancy of Orthodox Jewish life in New York.

Mr. Brooks, a secular Jew, considered to be a conservative pundit that liberals like, someone who engages with the liberal agenda, wrote:

“Pomegranate looks like any island of upscale consumerism, but deep down it is based on a countercultural understanding of how life should work. Those of us in secular America live in a culture that takes the supremacy of individual autonomy as a given. Life is a journey. You choose your own path. You can live in the city or the suburbs, be a Wiccan or a biker.

“For the people, who shop at Pomegranate, the collective covenant with G-d is the primary reality and obedience to the laws is the primary obligation. They go shopping like the rest of us, but their shopping is minutely governed by an external moral order.”

The article took me—the founder and owner of Pomegranate—by complete surprise. Pomegranate has done, thank G-d, very well and its reputation precedes it. It has set a new standard for the kosher food market. But I did not expect that a grocery store would generate so much press in the secular media.

I am naturally proud that one of the most followed columnists in the country found so much to like in Pomegranate, and that our store inspired a powerful Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name). Mr. Brooks gave millions of readers an authentic appreciation of the life of the Torah observant Jew. In an era when orthodox Jews are often vilified and portrayed as parasites, criminals, fanatic, and strange, David Brooks showed the world the vibrancy, the normalcy, and the stability of the observant Jewish community.

In his own words: “All of us navigate certain tensions, between community and mobility, autonomy and moral order. Mainstream Americans have gravitated toward one set of solutions. The families stuffing their groceries into their Honda Odyssey minivans in the Pomegranate parking lot represent a challenging counterculture. Mostly, I notice how incredibly self-confident they are. Once dismissed as relics, they now feel that they are the future.”

What is it that impressed David Brooks about Pomegranate as to inspire him to write an article celebrating Orthodox Jewry, not a common phenomenon on the pages of the New York Times? The answer is important, because living in times when bashing Orthodox Jews is popular, in Israel and abroad, we must know how we can alter the impression; each of us must learn how he or she can make a similar Kiddush Hashem.

“In Midwood, Brooklyn, there’s a luxury kosher grocery store called Pomegranate serving the modern Orthodox and Hasidic communities. It looks like a really nice Whole Foods. There’s a wide selection of kosher cheeses from Italy and France, wasabi herring, gluten-free ritual foods and nicely toned wood flooring.”

What Mr. Brooks enjoyed was that “Pomegranate looks like any island of upscale consumerism, but deep down it is based on a countercultural understanding of how life should work.” What he saw was a Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) that is majestic, beautiful, endearing, clean, high-class, and yet it is filled with spiritual meaning. He observed that the religious Jew cherishes professionalism, fine cuisine and a refined ambiance, yet sees it all as serving a deeper purpose—the purpose of serving a Divine Creator. There is a depth that pervades the material life of the Jew who sees the entire world as a harp to express the music of G-d’s oneness.

This, in my opinion, is the primary ingredient for Kiddush Hashem. When they look at us and see the opposite of cleanliness, dignity, respect and social etiquette, it gives them a good excuse to dismiss us as extremist fanatics. But when they enter into a Pomegranate, or a similar institution, and they see how “normal” the orthodox Jew lives; when they observe beauty, integrity and wholesomeness in the life of the Torah Jew, and it is all pervaded by the underlying commitment to Hashem (G-d), they are forced to ask themselves what’s the price paid by modern man for dismissing G-d from his/her life?

The unique power of the Jewish people is that we are empowered to integrate Gashmeus—material beauty and comfort—with Ruchneyos—Divine meaning. In Judaism, matter and energy are one. A life of holiness does not mean a life of destitution and small-mindedness. On the contrary, we want our Shabbos (Sabbath) tables decorated with the most beautiful and delicious delicacies, because the most appealing foods have all one purpose: To serve Hashem and to bring His light into the physical world, transforming the landscape of planet earth into a Divine abode.

For too long has the schism in our lives between the material and the spiritual crippled the ability of the outside world to be inspired by Torah and its value system. The future of the world depends on orthodox Jewry showing the way how gashmeyus and ruchneyos can become one—how our material being can and must become a channel for our spiritual essence. I hope that Pomegranate is in some small measure contributing to this cause, the ultimate purpose of all creation.

Abraham Banda is the proprietor of Pomegranate, on 1507 Coney Island Ave in Brooklyn, New York.

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