For the past several years I've been putting out a light-hearted '18 Ways You Know Pesach is Coming In Israel' piece to describe the frenetic days leading up to Pesach in the holy city.
This year, there are a few additional notable events that are driving the news cycles over here.
Apart from the upcoming Mid-East visit of the pope and the ongoing saga of whether Gilad Shalit will be home for Pesach, there's the controversy over the Chametz Law. Never heard of it? Well, since 1986, Israel has had a law on the books that forbids leavened products from being displayed in public during Pesach. For the duration of the holiday, supermarkets cover their shelves containing non-Pesach items with thick white paper, whether to abide by the law or to avoid causing further pain to customers suffering from bread withdrawal is not clear.
Last year all hell broke loose when a Jerusalem judge overturned the law (that no one had ever been charged with violating) opining that it's permissible to sell chametz, as long as it's not publicly displayed. Meanwhile, Haaretz revealed in a poll that 68 percent of the population answers 'no'� when asked if they are planning on eating chametz during Pesach.
Citizens of southern Israel have far weightier concerns, as they face the prospect of a Passover under fire for the eighth year running. The ceaseless barrage of Kassam and Katyusha rockets toward our southern cities and surrounding western Negev kibbutzim has shattered any semblance of the 'enhanced security' we were promised by the 2005 Gaza pullout.
As if that weren't bad enough, almost all the former Gush Katif residents are still in temporary housing almost four years since their eviction. Many who moved into the vast and dismal caravilla camp of Nitzan, near Ashkelon are still unemployed and dealing with the emotional and psychological effects of displacement.
Meantime, on Pesach the extent of the dire poverty of hundreds of thousands of Israelis is exposed. Latest figures indicate that roughly 20.5% of Israeli families live below the poverty line. Moreover, 24.7% of Israel's residents and 35.9% of its children live in impoverished families. 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 are expected to descend on us with a vengeance. Most visible are the busloads of pilgrims from eastern Europe, Nigeria and an assortment of Asian countries--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 overcame Pharoah, we'll overcome 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, for those who have read this far, here's an updated version of the 18 (now 20) Ways You Know Pesach is Coming To Israel:
1. The Israeli Army presses into service some 200 IDF chaplains including reservists, to commence the massive task of kashering the hundreds of kitchens, mess halls and eating corners used by soldiers all over the country.
2. Street scenes in Israel change every day before Passover according to what's halachically necessary: In the days 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.
3. 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 accommodate 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.
4. 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!
5. 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.
6. 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 successfully snap up a few meters of the handy counter-covering material.
7. No holiday in Israel is complete without a strike or two. In years past the Histadrut Labor Union threatened to launch a general strike 10 days before the holiday to protest planned economic cuts. Ben Gurion Airport was included. This year, it's electric company workers who are out on strike...
8. 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.
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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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. Israel Radio announces that 700 prisoners will get a furlough to spend the holiday with family.
13. 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).
14. Israel's chief rabbis sell the nation's chametz to one Hussein Jabar, a Moslem Arab resident of Abu Ghosh and manager at Jerusalem's Renaissance Hotel. Estimated worth: $150 billion secured by a down payment of NIS 20,000. Jabar tool over the task some 14 years ago, after the previous buyer, also from Abu Ghosh, was fired when it was discovered his maternal grandmother was Jewish.
15. 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!"
16. 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 http://www.kipa.co.il/passover/sell.asp
17. Sign of the times? A few years ago, 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. In a move to ease another kind of Pesach yearning, the Israeli branch of Ben & Jerry's ice cream has developed Matza Crunch flavor. French vanilla with chips of chocolate-covered matza make up the new flavor, which is being sold for $4.50 a pint in Israeli supermarkets.
18. 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.
19. Guess Who's Buying Matza? According to Iyad Sharbaji, the manager of Gadaban Supermarket at the entrance to the the Galilee Arab town of Umm al Fahm, his Matza is consumed entirely by local Arabs. Sharbaji told Haaretz that he generally stocks up on Matza for Passover and has to replenish stock before the end of the holiday, due to keen demand by locals.
It turns out the avid consumption of matza is not a new trend in Arab towns and villages, whose inhabitants view the traditional Jewish food as nothing more or less than a welcome and refreshing change in the menu. "It's not a religious issue, and certainly not a political one," Sharbaji explains.
20. A sign of our 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!