This past summer, I had an eye-opening experience that forced me to realize how fortunate I am to have kosher food so readily available. It all started when I set off on the vacation I had always dreamed of. I was driving cross-country in my new, deluxe model recreational vehicle (RV). The scenery was spectacular and each state had its own unique sights, sounds, and smells. I entered the state of Kentucky early Friday morning. I knew that I only had a few hours to get to the only Jewish community in that state. I would need to replenish my food supplies for Shabbos and the coming week. Well, I never expected my RV to break down in Hopkinsville, Kentucky – Orthodox Jewish population of zero. I went to the mechanic, and he told me that I would need a replacement part for my engine, and he wouldn’t be able to get one in for at least 24 hours. I would have to wait out Shabbos here. But when my query regarding kosher food to the proprietor of the local grocery store received a perplexed stare, I knew I was in trouble.
I quickly learned that Hopkinsville not only didn’t have kosher food, but it also didn’t house shuls, Orthodox families, or any kosher stores either. I was distraught, and Shabbos was fast approaching. I decided to check the grocery store anyway; even if I couldn’t have a lavish meal for Shabbos, at least I would have some snacks to sustain me through the day.
Walking into the store, I felt embarrassed that I was the only Jew, then mad at myself for thinking that. Our religion is special and unique; kosher is just one of the things that helps define who we are.
I entered the store and started going down the food aisles. I walked down the chips aisle and grabbed the first thing I saw: nachos. As I turned to pay, I looked down at the item and read the ingredients. It contained many different things, most of which I had never even heard of. I then desperately searched the bag and, to my shock and dismay, realized there was no OU on it. I turned around to replace it on the shelf and examined the next item on display. It, too, contained no OU. I frantically ran down another aisle, then another. Finally I had to admit that my attempt was futile. Even if I knew some of the items from my hometown, I couldn’t trust that it was kosher out here; and with no OU symbol on it to verify that it was kosher, I simply couldn’t eat it.
There was no way I was going to be able to buy meat or fish, so I had to make do with a vegetarian Shabbos. Feeling embarrassed from my mad dash through the store, and dismayed at the thought of no meat, I sadly turned to the health-food section of the store. In the end, I bought a bag of flour, yeast, potatoes, grapes, vegetables, eggs, and oil. I trudged back to my RV and began cooking my Shabbos meal: the flour and yeast mixed with water went into one pan for challah; the potatoes were baked in another; the vegetables went into yet another pan with some oil to make roasted vegetables. Then I set to work squeezing the grapes and adding water so that I could have grape juice. What would have taken me minutes at home took me hours here. The challah was lumpy and burnt, the potatoes were shriveled up, and the vegetables were soft as opposed to crunchy and brown. It pained me to admit it, but I certainly was not meant to be a chef. And the grape juice- let’s just say I’m glad I usually buy it. Up until this point in my life, I took so many things for granted. At home I just walked into our local kosher store and grabbed whatever I wanted from the shelves. Out here in Hopkinsville, it took me hours to find kosher food, and I still hadn’t found what I needed. I never realized how one simple thing- like the letter O with a letter U- saved me hours on shopping outings. I never realized something so small could affect me in a way so great. With an OU symbol, shopping was so convenient, not to mention quick.
I barely choked down my pathetic meal that Shabbos, all the while thinking of how spoiled I was to have an OU on almost every item back at home. I promised myself that the next time I walked down the food aisle in my hometown I would think about the OU employees and thank them all the while. After Shabbos I felt deprived, but fortunate at the same time. On Sunday, I stopped by the mechanic’s and rejoiced to learn that the necessary part had come in. I immediately paid to have it installed. While it was being installed, I though about my experience in Hopkinsville and hoped it would impact me for the better.
Even when I returned to my hometown a few weeks later, my Shabbos experience in Kentucky was fresh in my mind. My friends started reporting seeing a difference in the way I shopped in the months that followed. Even though I knew everything was kosher in our local grocery store, I always looked for the OU symbol and smugly proclaimed it was there. (I couldn’t help but remember my long hours in the grocery store in Hopkinsville looking for just one OU.) My experience had helped me to realize that keeping kosher is not something we do to stay healthy – although that is a big advantage – but also because it defines who we are and who we are supposed to be. Now I proudly walk down each aisle, holding my face up high, showing to the world that I keep kosher- and am proud of it