I remember the moment distinctly. I was sitting in a Baptist church on 9th Street in downtown Columbia, waiting for Rosh Hashanah services to end. We were sitting in a church because the synagogue had no other place to hold services; the congregation wasn’t large enough to actually own an entire building. The rabbi was new to Columbia. He had just moved from Curaçao to lead this congregation, and surely he’d begun to question why he’d left the Caribbean for mid-Missouri. The year was 2005.
On stage, with a cross hanging over her head in Damoclesian fashion, a member of the congregation’s board of directors was giving an especially strange speech. It had started out with an extended history of the life and times of Adolf Hitler, and I do not remember where it went from there. I do remember her conclusion, however.
“Look around us!” she called out. “We are the Jews of mid-Missouri.”
I looked around. There were about 70 people in the audience.
At this point, I realized that my Bubbe’s dream of me finding a nice Jewish girl at school was likely to go unfulfilled.
But every year since, I’ve enjoyed the strange little moments that come with being a Jew in Columbia, Mo. My favorite annual tradition happened today: the morning before Passover, when I go to the local Gerbes supermarket and attempt to buy matzah.
It’s a ritual unlike any other. It usually goes like this:
- Step 1: Locate the matzah hidden among the leavened, more delicious bread products in Gerbes’ surprisingly plentiful cracker aisle.
- Step 2: Attempt to purchase such matzah.
- Step 3: Smile and nod as the cashier rings up the matzah while saying, “Oh, so you’re the guy we bought all these Jew crackers for!”
But today, in the tradition of the wise child, I must ask: why was this year different from all other years? Perhaps because today, I went out of my way to buy Kosher-for-Passover orange juice (though I should note: nowhere in the Torah does it mention Moses telling the Israelites that they had not the time for their juice to be squeezed). Or perhaps because when I passed through the wine aisle, looking for a bottle of Manischewitz, none was to be found.
So I circled the store twice, looking for matzah (and seeing as the search for the afikoman is part of the Passover seder, you’d think I’d be good at finding hidden loaves of unleavened bread by now). None was to be found. On my third lap of the store, a manager stopped me and asked me what I was looking for. I explained, politely, that I was looking for this seasonal product known as matzah.
“Ah, yes, matzah. Now, would that be in the dessert aisle?”
“No,” I replied. “It’s more of a cracker.”
The manager looked puzzled. She called over another manager: “Hey, where’s the matzah?”
The other manager just frowned. “Sorry,” he said. “No matzah this year.”
“No matzah?” I asked. “Did you decide not to order any?”
“No,” he said. “We ordered our usual supply from the distributor. You know, that’s how we get our food here.”
I smiled and nodded, confused at why he thought that I thought that Gerbes had some secret factory in the back cranking out Tropicana and low-grade pretzels and, of course, matzah at all hours of the day.
“But the distributor called us back a few days ago,” he continued. “He said: no matzah this year. But you can check over at the Broadway store. They might have some.”
So I did what I could: I thanked him for his troubles and walked away, wondering all along why it is that even Gerbes answers to a higher authority.