Israel's ultrareligious community, Bnai Brak, on the outskirts of this metropolis, resembled a cleaning factory in these few days before Passover.
Housewives attacked their domestic chores as if driven by demons. There was a fever of buying, brushing, scrubbing and disinfecting everywhere. Floors, tiles and walls were washed down vigorously. Balconies were laid out with objects in need of airing. Two weeks before the onset of the Festival of Freedom (observed only seven days in Israel) rugs were vacuumed and/or washed in vinegar and rolled up, ready to be laid down on the last day before Pesach so that not a speck of dust or a crumb of chomet (leavened bread) would be trapped.
The freshly laundered draperies had pleats pinned or sewn into place, the pins or stitches to be removed just minutes before setting the table for the seder. Households were painted, walls papered, winter mold cleared from walks and cabinets. Even pictures, clocks and telephones (one does not find television sets here) were sanitized.
Keeping kosher is probably simpler in Israel than elsewhere during the Passover week of culinary changeover. For one thing, many food products are prepared with ingredients that will render them permissible during this festival. The non-Passover section is cordoned off and covered. A kashrut (kosher) certificate hangs over the entire section of meat, dairy and grocery products as well as sweets.
One is eminently aware that this is the holiday of matzo (unleavened bread) in remembrance of what the Israelites baked in haste as they fled oppression in Egypt. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews make their own round bread (especially supervised from the time it was wheat in the field to its baking).
Households have had utensils kashered -- dropped in boiling water to make them kosher. However, not all ethnic groups agree on what is and what is not permissible. Ahkenazim (Jews of European origin) do not eat rice or legumes; Sephardim (North African and Balkan Jews) do, as do Jews from Afro-Asian countries such as Yemen.
The symbolism of the Passover foods is very much the same, but the seder plate may vary. Almost all serve horseradish to signify the bitterness suffered under the yoke of Pharaoh. Haroset, made of chopped fruit and wine and spices, is served bland in Western homes, while Middle Eastern groups enhance it with dates and other fruits. In both cases, haroset represents the mortar made by the Israelites as slaves in Egypt.
Karpas may be lettuce, parsley, potato or celery, and signifies the harvest: it is dipped in salt water signifying tears shed by the Israelites during their toil. The grilled chicken wing or lamb chop called xoreah (wing) symbolizes the sheep's blood spread on doors of Jewish homes when Egyptian first-born males were snatched away by the Angel of Death. It also denotes the sacrificial lamb offered by the Israelites on the altar of the Holy Temple.
French Jews serve egg soup heated in salty liquid; Italians a soup called dayenu based on the hymn of thanksgiving in the Passover Haggadah (liturgy). When it is sung, the housewife has her cue to drop the traditional knaidlach (dumplings filled with meat) into the soup and for the meal to start.
For 10,000 newly arrived Ethiopian Jews this will be their first seder they will celebrate in their new home. The chanting of the Haggadah in the age-old tunes will add a new variation in Israel to the story of freedom.