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"We survived Pharoah..."
Burning the last of the Chametz on a Jerusalem street
by Judy Lash Balint
April 1, 2007

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 in the holy city.

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 we are in fact surrounded by murderous enemies. 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, but the effects of last summer's Hizbollah war have left an indelible mark on the country.

This Pesach, 122 families will suffer through Seder night with an empty chair. It's the seat their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters occupied last year before they went off to war. For the families of the 119 soldiers who lost their lives defending the rest of us from the Hizbollah onslaught and the three kidnapped heroes whom we still pray for, the heaviness of the loss is compounded by the bitter facts that have yet to emerge surrounding the tragic lapses in judgement by so many of our military and political leaders. With massive military training exercises going on, few doubt the inevitability of another war in the coming months or years.

Almost everyone who supported and promoted Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" plan now acknowledges that destroying 22 Jewish communities in the Gush Katif section of the Gaza strip has done nothing to further the path to peace. The ceaseless daily barrage of Kassam and Katyusha rockets toward our southern cities of Ashkelon and Sderot and the surrounding western Negev kibbutzim has shattered any semblance of the 'enhanced security' we were promised by last summer's Gaza pullout.

Almost all the former Gush Katif residents are still in temporary housing more than eighteen months after their eviction. Many who moved into the vast and dismal caravilla camp of Nitzan, near Ashkelon 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. Latest figures are that 1.6 million Israelis (out of a population of around 7 million) live below the poverty line. Families and the elderly form almost endless lines in every city around the food banks and soup kitchens 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, while all the other voluntary social welfare organizations report unprecedented demand for their services this Pesach.

In every Charedi neighborhood during the week before Pesach, men and boys block the narrow streets with handtrucks piled high with sacks of carrots, potatoes, oranges and cartons of eggs--all courtesy of the Kimcha D'Pischa funds that funnel donations from abroad to the Charedi communities specifically for Pesach food.

The tourists, largely oblivious to our problems, have descended on us with a vengeance--the intersection of Pesach and Easter means that the Old City is packed with groups of visitors from all over the world. Most visible are the busloads of Christian pilgrims from eastern Europe and Nigeria--the Jews arrive in much smaller family groups, excited to be in Israel for one of the three pilgrimage festivals.

So, as the popular Israeli expression goes, "We survived Pharoah, we'll survive this too..." This year, as always, we'll celebrate Pesach, the festival of our liberation and the birth of the Jewish people as a nation
in the hope that we'll soon merit a saner reality.

Meanwhile, here's an updated version of 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 every last gram of chametz from oven racks and stove tops lugged through the streets.

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. Two days before the Seder there's the annual pick-up of oversized items and appliances. Dozens of antiquated computer monitors and old toaster ovens stand forlornly next to the garbage bins on their way to the dump.

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 then headed by current Defense Minister 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. This year, it's government workers who are out on strike...

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, but an increasing number of ashkenazic rabbis are coming out with lenient rulings regarding legumes.

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, the City of David, Sderot and 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 one Ismail Jabar, 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 melodies. 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. At the Kotel last week, I watched as workers performed the twice-yearly ritual (pre-Pesach and pre-Rosh hashanah) of removing thousands of personal notes from the crevices of the Kotel to bury them 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!