Dear Supermarket: There Is No Such Thing as 'Jew Food'

On the eve of Hanukkah, there's something you should know about our holidays.

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A supermarket cart.
It may sound crazy, but each holiday has its own characteristic foods and baked goods. They’re not all the same.Credit: Bloomberg
Sue Fendrick
Sue Fendrick

To: Managers of Local, Regional and National Supermarkets

From: Your Jewish Public

Re: Jew Food

There is no category called "Jew food" that magically applies to every holiday. It may sound crazy, but each holiday has its own characteristic foods and baked goods. They’re not all the same.

No matter how close to eye level you display it, horseradish is not going to sell very well on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), which is a holiday associated with sweetness. And putting out a display of borsht, gefilte fish, and hamantaschen around Hanukkah is just really really silly. You’re like the boy in high school who’s trying really hard but just doesn't get it.

Don't your previous years' sales records teach you anything? I’m pretty sure those things are computerized these days. If you by any chance do see an uptick in sales of these products around Hanukkah, it is only because equally clueless consumers who are going to Jewish friends' homes decide that you must know what you are doing, and buy these things as some sort of weird hostess gift. But frankly, I highly doubt that sales of these items rise when December rolls around. I think you are just not paying attention.

The folks at our local Trader Joe's seem to have the agility to realize that quinoa needs to be ordered frequently in the days leading up to Passover, even though they don't know why. (Don't ask. You can't handle the truth.) To be fair to the rest of you, when I discussed this with one of their employees, he did ask me if that was also the holiday for the applesauce. No, that’s Hanukkah. Yes, now is the time to put out the applesauce, in the Hanukkah display. It goes well with potato pancakes. You know what doesn’t go well with potato pancakes? Matzah. I mean, it doesn’t not go with potato pancakes. But it’s for a whole separate holiday. Right. Not Hanukkah! Once again, Hanukkah – not the catch-all-Jew-food holiday.

Seriously – matzah?! Are you aware that one of the biblical, Hebrew names for Passover is, literally "The Matzah Holiday"? I am not making this up. Matzah is a one-holiday food. I'm not saying people don't buy it at other times during the year just to eat. They do. In high school, my friend Donna, a nice Catholic girl, loved matzah so much that I once bought her a box for Christmas. How is that possible, you say? Because you were selling it during "the December holidays," that's how. I'm telling you – ask other people, they will back me up on this – matzah has nothing to do with Hanukkah except that you keep selling it like some kind of clueless gentile retail broken record.

Do you order more Cadbury Cream Eggs around Christmas? No. Do you order more fruit cake before Easter? No. And you know why? Because Christmas is about the birth of Jesus and so is fruit cake, and Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus and so are Cadbury Cream Eggs. So too, Hanukkah is about victory over the forces of assimilation and oppression, and so is potato pancake mix (which is usually kosher for Passover and so is OK to sell in the Passover aisle, but because it’s kosher for the holiday, not because it’s a “traditional” Passover food; see above re: “different holidays have different foods” – yup, just like “regular” holidays). Passover is about liberation, and so is gefilte fish. Get it straight, for God’s sake. Or ask someone who knows. Because really, you look ridiculous. Seriously, seriously ridiculous.

Your intentions are good, even if they are motivated by uneducated, quixotic hopes for sales. But your failure to learn, while almost charming in its naiveté, is kind of retro. I hear there are a few Jews and maybe even some rabbis and Jewish educators in your town, or available by email, who could give you a list of which foods are likely to sell the best for each holiday. Or you could just take a look at your spreadsheet and see whether that shmurah matzah you put out this year for Hanukkah sold particularly well last December. Just a thought. No? What a surprise. Maybe you want to rethink that sales strategy.

Oh, and if you’re one of the managers who was dumbfounded when the kosher meat section of your store sold out within hours on a particular day this past September, and you vaguely remember that also happened on a totally different day last fall? Here’s the thing: Jewish holidays fall on different days on the “regular” calendar every year. We’re on a lunar calendar (Muslims are too, by the way), and though we have correctives built into the system to keep the holidays from wandering aimlessly around the seasons, the secular dates vary from year to year. However, they are easily predicted – with close to 100 percent accuracy! – by consulting any list of Jewish holidays for the year, available on the internet in a place or two.

If I can be helpful, let me know. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting for the inevitable after-Hanukkah sale on leftover matzah and horseradish. It’s never too early to start shopping for Passover.

Sue Fendrick is a writer, editor, rabbi, spiritual director, humorist, and food shopper. She lives and works in the Boston area, and wishes she could keep both the retail food industry and Hollywood from making ridiculous, entirely avoidable Jew-y mistakes.

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