It’s been fascinating being here -- in the Jewish state -- for Passover, or Pesach as it’s known here, one of Judaism’s most widely observed holidays. Pesach is the seven or eight-day spring holiday starting Friday that commemorates the biblical story of the Exodus, in which the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.
First sign it was imminent came last week when my neighborhood bakery posted a notice saying they’d be closed from April 6-14th (that’s quite a long time) and if customers wanted any bread during that period, they needed to order beforehand. My baker’s off to Crete for the holiday, as is one of my Jerusalem girlfriends. (Everybody’s off to somewhere. Or they’ve got people coming here.)
Then store shelves started draining of bread and filling up with various kinds of matzo -- the flat, unleavened cracker that is eaten instead of bread during Passover, also known as the “Festival of Unleavened Bread.”
Unleavened bread is eaten because believers say the Israelites left in such a hurry they couldn’t wait for the bread dough to rise.
Then the (non-Jewish) woman who comes to clean my apartment every couple of weeks called to cancel, saying all her Jewish clients needed her to clean extra-thoroughly, to “get every breadcrumb.”
Her work load, she said--sounding stressed--was overwhelming: “I have to take all the furniture out of the house, and then put it all back again. I was at one lady’s house for 12 hours yesterday.”
Soon after, I saw exactly what she meant, just down the street: An Orthodox man in my neighborhood outside on his terrace with a flashlight (and a neon light overhead) going through the drawers of a closet he had dragged outside -- for about an hour. Although I can’t say for sure, he may have been looking for breadcrumbs.
According to custom you can’t have even one left in your house by the time Passover starts.
I headed down to Mea Sharim, Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood to see what Pesach preparations were happening there. Plenty, I found.
Orthodox Jews in the neighborhood were lining up at big vats of boiling water on street corners with bags of dishes and pots -- cleansing their dishes of any breadcrumbs, to make them suitable for Passover. More affluent Jews will have an entire separate set of dishes for the holiday, but many in the ultra-Orthodox of Mea Sharim live in poverty.
And then, a parade of black-hatted, black-suited men and boys -- dozens, if not hundreds, I promise -- pushing big trolleys (or old baby strollers, grocery carts, anything with wheels) to and from a huge, open-air food distribution site. Organizers said it was a Passover charity food give-away to needy Orthodox families. Tuesday was “men’s day.” The following day was “women’s day.”
While I was trying to speak to one of the organizers, who spoke only Hebrew, a young man in a white shirt, black trousers and a black hat asked me in perfect English if I needed any help.
“Yes, yes, I do,” I replied enthusiastically, and then struck up a long conversation with the 21-year-old from New Jersey studying at a nearby yeshiva. Jackpot! I could ask him anything I hadn’t yet understood about Pesach.
“Tell me about this buying and selling of ‘chametz’ (or leavening, something made from one of five types of grain),” I finally asked him.
One day last week, while having coffee at a neighborhood café, a religious man stopped to ask the café owner if he had any “chametz” (left-over bits of leavening) to sell. I had asked the owner about it. He had said you can sell chametz to goys (non-Jews) for Passover and then buy it back afterwards, if you want.
“I can’t explain chametz just like that, in five minutes,” the earnest, young, deeply religious young man replied to my question. “Entire scholarly works have been written just about chametz.”