By Judy Lash Balint, JNS.org
If you’ve never heard an Arab calling out alter zachen (“old things”) in Yiddish, then you’ve never experienced pre-Passover preparations in Jerusalem. It’s part of the clean-up mania that grips the city in the run-up to the Pesach holiday.
I remember the days when an old, wizened guy would traipse around the neighborhood looking to pick up anyone’s old shmattes — today, they drive around in a pick-up truck before Passover and Rosh Hashanah, trolling for anything metallic.
Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Municipality informs us that:
“The Sanitation Department will heighten its activities, double its shifts and add more garbage collection vehicles. Sanitation Department crews are working to clear out waste and garbage dumps discarded by residents in the city neighborhoods as part of the Passover cleaning operation.”
Once that’s done, Jerusalemites will be able to ease into the Passover holiday in a spruced-up, cleaned-up city, ready to receive whomever else in the world might feel like dropping in for a visit.
Need to stock up on household goods? Pre-Passover is the time to do it, as stores compete to offer rock-bottom prices on dishes and cutlery. The NIS 75 price ($20) of a perfectly nice set of china dishes for six kind of makes up for gas prices, which stand at a high of almost $8 per gallon.
Bank Hapoalim, which like every bank in Israel charges a fee for every single transaction, redeems itself slightly by underwriting free entrance to 45 sites, museums and attractions throughout the country during the intermediate days of Passover.
The array of activities on offer in Jerusalem during Passover is truly astounding.
On the religious front, Haaretz revealed in a poll that 68 percent of the population answers “no” when asked if they are planning on eating chametz during Passover and 75 percent of Israelis will take part in a seder.
Meantime, on Passover, the extent of the dire poverty of hundreds of thousands of Israelis is exposed. The latest figures indicate that roughly 20.5 percent of Israeli families live below the poverty line. Moreover, 24.7 percent of Israel’s residents and 35.9 percent 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, which do their best to provide the basics necessary to celebrate the holiday.
In every haredi neighborhood during the week before the holiday, men and boys block the narrow streets with hand trucks 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 haredi communities, specifically for Passover food.
For those who have read this far, here’s the “Count the Ways You Know Pesach is Coming” list:
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.
Street scenes in Israel change every day before Passover, according to what is halachically necessary: In the days before the holiday, yeshiva students 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 cutlery, Kiddush cups and the like start to grow every day, and, at the last minute, blowtorches are at the ready to cleanse every last gram of chametz from oven racks and stove tops lugged through the streets.
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 Passover 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 over-sized items and appliances. Dozens of antiquated TVs and old toaster ovens stand forlornly next to the garbage bins, on their way to the dump.
The day before Passover, families replace the yeshiva students on the street, 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 open fires in any other areas. Yeah, right!
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 seder tables.
Merchants in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Mea She’arim and Geula generally run out of heavy plastic early in the week before Passover. In a panic, I make an early morning run to the Machane Yehuda market to snap up a few meters of the handy counter-covering material.
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, so good luck if you haven’t scheduled an appointment for a pre-Passover/Omer haircut. You won’t get in the door at most barber and beauty shops.
Mailboxes are full of Passover appeals from the myriad of organizations helping the poor celebrate the holiday. Newspapers are replete with articles about selfless Israelis who volunteer by the hundreds in the weeks before the holiday to collect, package and distribute Passover supplies to the needy.
The biggest food challenge to Ashkenazi, non-kitniyot (legume) eating Jews is finding cookies, margarine, etc., made without kitniyot, but a few Ashkenazi rabbis are coming out with lenient rulings regarding legumes.
Since most of the country is on vacation for the entire week of Passover, all kinds of entertainment and trips are on offer. Ads appear for everything from the annual Boombamela beach festival, to kids’ activities at the Bloomfield Science Museum, to concerts in Hebron, to explorations at the City of David, and Dead Sea music festivals.
Passover with its theme of freedom and exodus always evokes news stories about recent olim. This year, general immigration numbers are up slightly: 29,600 for 2018. Despite rising anti-Semitism in Europe, Jewish Agency figures show that only 2,660 French Jews immigrated to Israel in 2018—a drop of 25 percent over the previous year. The largest number of immigrants, as usual, was from Russia and Ukraine: 17,000 in 2018. Only 3,550 arrived from North America.
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. Paid cleaners make up the remaining 3 million hours, at a cost of NIS 64 million ($15.6 million).
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 20,000. Jabar took over the task more than 15 years ago, after the previous buyer, also from Abu Ghosh, was fired when it was discovered his maternal grandmother was Jewish.
At the Western Wall, workers perform the twice-yearly ritual (pre-Passover and pre-Rosh Hashanah) of removing thousands of personal notes from the crevices of the Kotel to bury them on the Mount of Olives.
Guess who’s buying matzah? According to Iyad Sharbaji, the manager of Gadaban Supermarket at the entrance to the Galilee Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, his matzah is consumed entirely by local Arabs. Sharbaji told Haaretz that he generally stocks up on matzah 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 matzah 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.
The Passover theme of freedom and exodus in Israel even extends to criminals. Israel Radio announced that 700 prisoners will get a furlough to spend the holiday with family.
According to the Agriculture Ministry, Israel’s fishmongers will sell 1,100 tons of carp, 80 tons of St. Peter’s fish and 300 tons of mullet this Passover season to satisfy the demand for gefilte fish and Moroccan-style chraime.
For some reason, it’s become expected practice for companies to give their workers gifts on Passover (and Rosh Hashanah). The Tovanot Market research firm found that some 1.5 million workers in Israel receive gifts from their employers at this time of year. Most generous is the Dead Sea Works, whose workers get a check for NIS 1,780 (about $495), plus an iPad.