Like throngs of other tri-state Jews contemplating the Yom Kippur fast, early last evening I found myself clutching a number at the appetizing counter at Zabar’s, before our dinner reservation in midtown. (And just in case you were wondering, they had long run out of sturgeon, and weren’t getting any more before the holiday, much to the dismay of many who had been waiting patiently.) We had planned for our little culinary detour by stowing an icepack-filled cooler in the back of the car, and Lady Luck smiled on us by freeing up the corner parking space right in front of H&H, just as the light at 80th Street turned green.

We were hardly alone in our quest for smoked fish. I pulled ticket #8, and heard them calling “79? 80? 81?” as I settled in for my wait. Old people, young people, cheerful sorts, cranky kvetches – all trying to weave their way around the jammed emporium with their two-story shopping carts. Expecting holiday crowds, of course, Zabar’s had pre-packaged hand-sliced delicacies for easy shopping, but most meshuggies like me, know the experience is half the fun.

Behind the counter, there were seven or eight guys, slicing away unflustered, while one was entirely dedicated to announcing numbers and directing the lucky ticket holder to the available slicing station. Most of the slicers have been there for years and years, probably no one longer than Jerry, the older Asian guy, who’s been slicing for 30 I’m told. Although I’m only in half a dozen times a year, all the guys look familiar. I read in a fascinating article over the summer that the Zabar brothers are so generous to their employees and their families with pay, benefits, opportunities and recognition, that few ever leave.

About 10 minutes in, an impatient lady decided she had had enough, and gave up, handing us her ticket, #98. Within a minute or two, it was our turn. Again, Lady Luck was with us, as we saw James, the handsome, fit guy with the piercing blue eyes waving at us. We greeted him and he asked what he could get for us, and soon he began the tedious process of slicing the first of two pounds of my favorite, Scotch-cured nova.

Knowing we would be there for a while – after all, we were going to follow up the Scotch with a couple pounds of regular nova, a pound of sable, and some whitefish – we figured we’d shoot the breeze with James, and we asked how he’s been. His unexpected answer stopped us both cold.

“Blessed,” he replied.

He saw that he had stunned us, and he went on to explain. “I go home to a warm bed. There’s food on my table. I have running water and I can take a hot shower. I am blessed.”

Indeed, James. Indeed.

How many times a day do you mindlessly ask people, “How ya doin’?” And how many times do you get an empty response like, “I’m fine,” or “I’m alright,” – or worse, a miserable reply like, “I’m terrible!” followed by some selfish whining.

How powerful, gratitude. A simple, truthful, one-word answer became a seminal moment in my life. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that this lesson befell us during these Days of Awe, this introspective time in Jewish life.

We’re all blessed, like James. It just depends on how you choose to look at things.

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