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Pesach As Usual?
Jerusalem street scene a few days before Passover
by Judy Lash Balint
April 9, 2006

For the past several years I've been putting out a light-hearted '18 Ways You Know Pesach is Coming To Jerusalem' piece to describe the frenetic days leading up to Pesach here.

This year there's a different feeling in the air. For many Israelis who have lived for years in a cocoon of hopeful denial, the reality is finally sinking in that the murderous enemies who surround us won't be going away any time soon. It may still be hard for some to believe that Hamas rules in areas just outside our major cities--Bethlehem, a 10 minute drive from my front door, or Ramallah, twenty minutes north of the Old City.

Those who supported and promoted Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" plan and are honest with themselves now realize that we have most definitely not disengaged from Gaza. Our soldiers are still deployed down there. Almost every one of my friends who has kids serving in the army knows that in all likelihood they will not be spending Seder night together with their offspring. The high terror alert and expected retaliation for our successful elimination of more than a dozen terrorists in Gaza yesterday took care of that. The daily barrage of Kassam and Katyusha rockets toward our southern cities of Ashkelon and Sderot and the surrounding kibbutzim has shattered any semblance of the 'enhanced security' we were promised by last summer's Gaza pullout.

Many of the residents of the twenty two Jewish communities destroyed in the vain attempt to disengage from Gaza area are still in limbo more than eight months on. A few are still living in tents; dozens more were in hotels until this week when they were evicted before Pesach and told to occupy pre-fab housing that isn't finished yet. Still others who have moved into the vast and dismal caravilla camp of Nitzan are unemployed and dealing with everything from possessions damaged from months in inadequate storage to emotionally overwrought teenagers.

Meantime, on Pesach the extent of the dire poverty of hundreds of thousands of Israelis is exposed. Families and the elderly form almost endless lines around the food banks and soup kitchens in every city that do their best to provide the basics necessary to celebrate the holiday. The Mesamche Lev group distributed 46,278 pairs of shoes to 10,200 needy families last week.

All the while, the politicians scheme over how their parties can have the most influence in the Knesset. Ehud Olmert announced the other day that there would be 24 cabinet ministers this time around. (That's four more than in the entire US cabinet)--all with staff, cars, expense accounts, security personnel and benefits. Don't be surprised if a greater percentage of the disgusted electorate fails to show up for the next election--a few weeks ago almost 40 percent of eligible voters turned their backs on the deeply flawed electoral system.

Still, with all that, we'll celebrate Pesach, the festival of our liberation and the birth of the Jewish people as a nation. The tourists have descended on us with a vengeance--huge Palm Sunday parades took place in and around the Old City today, and the hotels and major streets are packed with Jews excited to be in Israel for one of the three pilgrimage festivals.

So--in the hope that we'll soon merit a saner reality, here once again are the 18 Ways You Know Pesach is Coming To Jerusalem:

1. Street scenes in Israel change every day before Passover according to what's halachically necessary: For the week before the holiday, yeshiva students wielding blow torches preside over huge vats of boiling water stationed every few blocks on the street and in the courtyard of every mikveh. The lines to dunk cutlery, kiddush cups and the like start to grow every day, and, at the last minute, blow torches are at the ready to cleanse oven racks and stove tops lugged through the streets, of every last gram of chametz.

2. No alarm clock needed here--the clanging garbage trucks do the trick as they roll through the neighborhood every morning during the two weeks before Pesach to accomodate all the refuse from the furious cleaning going on in every household.

3. The day before Passover, families replace the yeshiva students, using empty lots to burn the remainder of their chametz gleaned from the previous night's meticulous search. In vain, the Jerusalem municipality sets up official chametz burning locations and issues strict orders banning burning in any other areas. Yeah, right..

4. Most flower shops stay open all night for the two days before Pesach, working feverishly to complete the orders that will grace the nation's seder tables.

5. Meah Shearim and Geula merchants generally run out of heavy plastic early in the week before Pesach. In a panic, I make an early morning run to the Machane Yehuda market to succesfully snap up a few meters of the handy counter-covering material.

6. No holiday in Israel is complete without a strike or two. Three years ago, the Histadrut Labor federation headed by Labor Party head Amir Peretz threatened to launch a general strike 10 days before the holiday to protest planned economic cuts. Last minute negotiations postponed the dreaded event.

7. Good luck if you haven't scheduled an appointment for a pre-Pesach/Omer haircut. You can't get in the door at most barber and beauty shops.

Observant Jews mark the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot by carrying out some of the laws of mourning--one of these is the prohibition against cutting hair.

8. Mailboxes are full of Pesach appeals from the myriad of organizations helping the poor celebrate Pesach. Newspapers are replete with articles about selfless Israelis who volunteer by the hundreds in the weeks before the holiday to collect, package and distribute Pesach supplies to the needy.

This year, Hazon Yeshaya Soup Kitchens plan on serving 7,000 meals per day during Passover. More than 15,000 food parcels will be distributed before the holiday, just by this one organization.

9. The biggest food challenge to those of us ashkenazic, non-kitniyot (legume) eaters is finding cookies, margarine etc. made without kitniyot.

10. Since most of the country is on vacation for the entire week of Pesach, all kinds of entertainment and trips are on offer. Ads appear for everything from the annual Boombamela beach festival, kid's activities at the Bloomfield Science Museum and concerts in Hebron and at the Dead Sea.

11. Pesach with its theme of freedom and exodus always evokes news stories about recent olim. This year, general immigration numbers are significantly down, but American aliya has enjoyed a mini-boom. For a couple of thousand new Israeli-Americans, it'll be their first seder at home in Israel.

12. This just in: According to Israel's Brandman Research Institute study, 43 million people hours will be spent nationwide in Israel's cleaning preparations for Passover this year. How does that break down? Of those cleaning hours, 29 million are done by women and 11 million by men. Persons paid to clean do the remaining 3 million hours at a cost of NIS 64 million ($15.6 million).

13. Israel's chief rabbis sell the nation's chametz to an Arab resident of Abu Ghosh. Estimated worth: 150 million shekel (about $28 million).

14. Radio commercials for all sorts of products and services are set to seder tunes. Last year, Volkswagen used the Mah Nishtana tune to advertise its cars. Another favorite is "Echad Mi Yodeya?--Who Knows One?" that has become a jingle for one brand of coffee. "Four mothers, three fathers, two sugars, one cup of coffee!"

15. For those of us too lazy to go to our rabbis to sell Chametz, one Israeli website offers the possibility of performing this ritual in cyberspace: For those of you out there with Hebrew enabled computers, take a look at

16. Sign of the times? Last year, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu issued a ruling that Viagra may be taken on Pesach provided the pill is encased in a special empty capsule so that the drug itself is not in direct contact with the body.

17. Right before Pesach (and Rosh Hashana) thousands of personal notes are removed from the crevices of the Kotel and buried on the Mt of Olives.

18. A sign of our difficult economic times--supermarkets entice shoppers with a promise to allow us to settle up the bill in six equal monthly payments on the credit card. Yes, many of us will still be paying for the seder come Rosh Hashana!