Getting ready for Passover in the Holy Land involves streetside chametz-burners, weeks of preparation by the IDF's kitchen crews and the incorporation of an African tradition.
JERUSALEM — Not every Israeli observes Passover, but every Israeli knows Passover is coming.
Preparations for the holiday are impossible to ignore, and they encroach on almost every facet of life in the weeks leading up to seder night and the seven-day holiday. (Unlike the Diaspora, Israelis have only one seder and the holiday lasts seven days, not eight.)
Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reveals that 88 percent of Israelis will take part in a seder and 47 percent will eat only kosher-for-Passover items during the holiday.
As for Israel’s army, some 200 Israel Defense Forces chaplains, including reservists, are pressed into service to commence the massive task of koshering the hundreds of kitchens, mess halls and eating corners used by soldiers at bases all over the country. According to Rabbi Zev Roness, a captain in the Armored Training School, “It’s a whole operation — the army prepares more than a month before Passover to ensure that all of the army kitchens meet the highest kosher-for-Passover standards.”
Street scenes in Israel change every day before Passover, according to what’s halachically necessary: Several days before the seder, young men wielding blowtorches preside over huge vats of boiling water stationed every few blocks on the street and in the courtyard of every mikvah.
The lines to dunk metal utensils start to grow every day and, at the last minute before the seder, blowtorches are at the ready to cleanse every last gram of chametz from oven racks and stove tops lugged through the streets by kids or overwrought mothers.
Prominent newspaper ads from Israel’s Energy Ministry feature dire warnings about the dangers inherent in cleaning gas burners. The text of the ads advises on the minutiae of taking apart the metal covers to get at that last bit of chametz.
No alarm clock is needed in the pre-Passover period — clanging garbage trucks do the trick as they roll through the neighborhood every morning during the two weeks before Passover to accommodate all the refuse from the furious cleaning going on.
Two days before the seder, there is the annual pickup of oversized items and appliances. Dozens of antiquated computer monitors and old toaster ovens stand forlornly next to the garbage bins.
The day before Passover, families seek out empty lots to burn the remainder of their chametz gleaned from the previous night’s meticulous search. The city is dotted with sputtering fires despite ads posted by the Jerusalem municipality announcing the location of official chametz-burning bins and banning fires in any other areas.
Most flower shops stay open all night for the two days before Passover, working feverishly to complete the orders that will grace the nation’s tables.
Observant Jews mark the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot by carrying out some of the laws of mourning, one of which is the prohibition against cutting hair. As a result, barber and beauty shops are jammed with customers in the pre-Passover days.
Mailboxes overflow with appeals from a myriad of organizations helping the poor. Newspapers are replete with articles about altruistic Israelis who volunteer by the hundreds in the weeks before the holiday to collect, package and distribute Passover supplies to the needy.
In Jerusalem alone, more than 40 restaurants close a few days before Passover. They clean out their kitchens, revamp their menus and open up with rabbinic supervision for the holiday to serve kosher-for-Passover meals to tourists as well as the hordes that are sick of cooking after the seder.
Since most of the country is on vacation for the entire week of Passover, all kinds of entertainment and trips are on offer. The annual Boombamela beach festival, kid’s activities at the Bloomfield Science Museum, concerts in Hebron, explorations at the City of David, solidarity excursions to the Shomron and music festivals at the Dead Sea are all popular. The popular Hebrew Bananagram game has even invented a special Passover version with points for words in the Haggadah.
The Passover theme of freedom and exodus in Israel even extends to criminals. Israel Radio announces that 700 prisoners will get a furlough to spend the holiday with family.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Israel’s fishmongers will sell 1,100 tons of carp, 80 tons of tilapia and 300 tons of mullet this Passover season to satisfy the tastes of gefilte fish lovers, as well as the Moroccan-style chraime fish eaters.
In every fervently Orthodox neighborhood, men and boys block the narrow streets with hand trucks piled high with sacks of carrots, potatoes and oranges and cartons of eggs, all courtesy of the Kimcha D’Pischa funds that funnel donations from abroad to Israeli haredim.
At the entrance to many large supermarkets, teenagers hand out flyers listing suggested items generous shoppers may purchase to be placed in bins for distribution to needy families.
Israel’s chief rabbis sell the nation’s chametz to one Hussein Jabar, a Muslim Arab resident of Abu Ghosh. Estimated worth: $150 billion secured by a down payment of NIS 100,000 (roughly $28,645). Jabar took over the task some 16 years ago, after the previous buyer, also from Abu Ghosh, was fired when it was discovered his maternal grandmother was Jewish.
At the Kotel, workers perform the twice-yearly ritual (pre-Passover and pre-Rosh Hashanah) of removing thousands of personal notes stuffed into the crevices of the Kotel, prior to burying them on the Mount of Olives.
Finally, the end of Passover is marked by the festive Maimouna, a traditional holiday celebrated by North African Jews immediately following Passover.
Following Maimouna, everyone heads back to work — until Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Jerusalem Day …
This article appeared in Passover Palate, a Jewish Exponent supplement.