The Shopping Bag Ladies
by Malky Lowinger
Am Echad Resources
October 25, 2002
It's 8:00 A.M. at the Satmar Bikur Cholim kitchen on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, and the place is already a beehive of activity. Svetlana and "the Rebbetzin" are stirring huge pots of chicken soup. Esther and Leah are chopping fresh vegetables. The answering machine light blinks urgently.
Mrs. Teitelbaum, petite and middle-aged, is clearly in charge. She sits down at her desk and listens to her messages. The Brody family called at midnight. Their daughter is being discharged from NYU; cancel her food package. Joseph from Long Island will be hospitalized for a week and he needs diabetic-safe food. If it's not too much trouble, says Mrs. Heller, could the salad for her father be prepared without tomatoes today?
Here at Satmar Bikur Cholim, established by the Satmar Rebbetzin in 1957 to provide assistance to the sick and the needy, and funded by private donations, nothing is too much trouble. The group happily and proudly offers a variety of services, though the ladies of Satmar are best known for their food packages, and especially their chicken soup.
The Bikur Cholim kitchen is located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the epicenter of the Satmar Chassidic sect. A tightly-knit, thriving community with highly disciplined religious standards, the Satmar are best known to most Jews for their unyielding stance against Zionism. Though they forcefully reject the Neturei Karta's public coddling of Palestinian terrorists, they nevertheless consider the establishment of a Jewish State before the Messiah's arrival as wrong and as a dangerous affront to the other nations of the world. Yet on this particular morning, political philosophy is the furthest thing from anyone's mind.
Ruchie, Layalah, and Frumie are assembling the food packages. The Bikur Cholim kitchen, a model of cleanliness and efficiency, is their pride and joy. One can actually imagine eating off the floors here. The activity is non-stop. Fruit and vegetable salads are lovingly placed into plastic containers, fresh rolls and cake packed into bags. And the soup, the famously delicious chicken soup, is carefully ladled into thermos containers, to maintain its heat, flavor and, presumably, curative properties until it reaches its intended recipients.
Each day, the volunteers assemble a hundred and fifty customized hot and wholesome meals, which are then distributed to Jewish patients, regardless of level of observance or affiliation, at fifteen metropolitan area hospitals. The recipients, many of whom have never eaten a kosher meal before in their lives (and many more of whom insist that the Satmar Bikur Cholim packages are helping to bring about their speedy recovery) are brought to the Satmar ladies' attention through family, friends or the hospital chaplain.
No computer sits on Mrs. Teitelbaum's desk, and no high-tech machinery graces the kitchen. Yet the place is a model of order and efficiency. Mrs. Teitelbaum laughs at the suggestion of storing the daily information in a database. She points to her head. "The best computer in the world," she says, with an old-world wisdom that has quite apparently served her well thus far.
At ten o'clock, a new team of volunteers bursts in the door. The women doing the cooking and packing are dressed in housecoats and turbans; the new group is smartly turned out in designer suits and stylish wigs. They're all ready to spend the day in the big city.
"I volunteer my time once a week," says Rivka, in a chocolate-colored tweed suit, "but some of the women volunteer two or three full days every week year in, year out." The food is carefully packed into shopping bags and last minute instructions are delivered. Twenty five women then pile onto the Bikur Cholim bus, eager to be on their way to performing a very special mitzvah.
As the bus makes its way onto the Williamsburg Bridge, the Bikur Cholim women settle down to their routines. Reizie takes a cellphone from her pocketbook. "This is when I call in my fish and grocery order," she explains. Matti takes out a siddur and begins her morning prayers. Chaya and Estie begin an animated conversation. "Did you hear that Suri made a shidduch last night?"
These women are Bikur Cholim veterans; they've been making the rounds at the city's hospitals for years. The names of New York's most prestigious medical centers easily roll of their tongues. Matti's been visiting Beth Israel and "Joint Diseases" for thirteen years. "That's my route twice a week," she says. Reizie lays claim to Lenox. And Leah reveals that she visits Mount Sinai "with a shopping cart. The doctors, the nurses, they all know my shopping cart. It's famous."
"We really get to know the patients," explains Sally, who visits Memorial Cancer Center every Thursday. "And the ones who go home to recover," she says, in Yiddish-influenced English, "we keep in touch with them too." It's not easy maintaining friendships with the critically ill, though, Sally confides, "especially when some of them never make it home at all."
"I lost two patients last week," she adds quietly. "It was very hard for me." For a moment it's easy to forget that Sally is just a visiting volunteer, and not "her" patients' doctor.
Reizie leans over to make a point. "We're not Satmar," she says, indicating her two sisters who accompany her every week. "But this group is so wonderful that we felt we had to join." Her first experience with Bikur Cholim wasn't easy. She was asked to fill in for a volunteer who unexpectedly took a day off.
Destination? Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. "I saw a lot of pain and suffering that day," she recalls. The experience was harrowing, but it left an indelible positive impression. "I'll never forget the way the patients' eyes would light up when they saw me," she says. "I honestly don't know what they look forward to more, the chicken soup or just having someone to talk to."
The bus weaves through the traffic along First Avenue, dropping off the women at each one's designated location. Sally gets off at Memorial carrying several shopping bags. They are surprisingly heavy, but she manages well. She has her routine. She drops off her jacket in the coat room and stops by the Rabbi's office to ask if any new patients have been admitted.
As she passes the visitor's lounge, she scans the room and her trained eye settles on a middle-aged man sitting alone in a corner. He looks Jewish and seems worried. As Sally approaches, he looks up and sees her food-laden shopping bags. "Satmar?" he asks.
Sally smiles. She's used to this. Her shopping bags, like Leah's cart, are famous.
Moments later this virtual stranger is confiding the details of his wife's illness to Sally, who listens intently and sympathetically, showing familiarity with the medical jargon. Over time she's become something of an expert in medicine. She offers the man a food package and he happily accepts. His wife isn't able to eat anything, but he's starving and will have it for lunch. "And what about tomorrow?" Sally prods gently. "And by tomorrow your wife will probably be able to eat jello and clear broth. I'll order it for you." And she quickly scribbles a note onto her card. Later she will call Mrs. Teitelbaum, who will store this information on the computer in her head.
Sally makes her way across the floor. She greets the interns and nurses, who seem to know her well. Many of the patients are too ill to accept guests; some are fast asleep. But their families are delighted to talk to someone who isn't dressed in hospital scrubs. On the eighth floor she visits an Israeli family who have been here for three months with their eight-year-old son.
"It's been very difficult for them," Sally explains. "Things are always up and down."
After chatting with the family for several minutes, Sally goes on to the outpatient clinic, where some chemotherapy treatment is administered. Bikur Cholim has customized packages for this unit too. She fills the communal refrigerator with sealed bags of sandwiches, salad, and desserts. Then she waves at Jeremy, speaks to Yossele, and exchanges pleasantries with a young mother whose daughter is busy playing with a doll house. Here, most of the children have lost their hair, yet no one seems in the least self conscious.
They just go about the business of being kids, despite the massive weight hanging precariously over their heads.
The Bikur Cholim bus will be returning to Williamsburg at two o'clock, bringing most of the volunteers back home. Sally, though, won't be on it. "I like to stay here a bit longer," she explains, "and spend some extra time with the children."
Outside the hospital, life in the big city marches relentlessly on.
Everyone seems entirely preoccupied, oblivious to the troubles of those who are hospitalized in their very midst, within these massive medical facilities. On the corner there is a newstand. The day's headlines, three inches tall, scream "Yankees Win!" Derek Jeter is pictured, grinning from ear to ear. Someone is pouring champagne over his head. A city of nine million people pays tribute to its heroes.
It's probably safe to say that Sally, Reizie, and Matti don't know a shortstop from a shortcake.
But that's okay. We all have our heroes.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Ms. Lowinger is a freelance writer in Brooklyn]
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