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Sunday, May 22, 2005

Spring 2004

Spring 2004 blog

Pesach 2004 has arrived – the house is clean, the chametz is out, and the refrain of “there’s nothing to eat” is in the air. I find that hard to believe, since a whole month’s salary has gone to the Pesach food, the shelves are emptying, and we’re not done yet. So all that food is going SOMEWHERE. But some of our family members don’t find matza terribly enticing, not matter how well it is disguised (ever tried matza granola? Or matza crepes?)

The yearly Israeli debate over “religious coercion” always heats up around Pesach-time. There is a law which forbids the selling of chametz during Pessach, and the government has enforced it during previous years through “Chametz inspectors” – Arab and Druze inspectors who check Jewish-owned stores to see if they are selling chametz, and fine those which are. There are all sorts of mechanisms for getting around this law…one of the most generally accepted is to sell one’s store fictitiously to a non-Jew, and continue with one’s business. But in recent years, the non-religious population has become less and less willing to submit to the demands of the religious, and this year, the anti-religious Interior Minister, who is responsible for Passover enforcement, announced that he would not enforce the law restricting chametz sales.

All of this is theoretical in an area like Tsfat, which is stridently traditional, if not completely religiously exacting. “Secular” has a different meaning in Tel Aviv, say, than in Tsfat . The hebrew word for secular is “hiloni”, from the verb “l’hallel” – to abuse, or defy the religious injunctions. But it doesn’t have the same meaning throughout Israel. In Tel Aviv, for example, a “hiloni” takes on the an active meaning – “hilonim” tend to be actively anti-religious. They demand their rights to observe Shabbat as they see fit (on the beach or in a mall), marry and divorce outside the authority of the rabbinical courts, purchase bread on Passover, etc. So the “Chametz inspectors”, when they are activated, prowl those areas.

A town like Tsfat, however, is a different story. To be a “hiloni” here is passive. Tsfat, like other development towns, was settled primarily by refugees from North Africa after 1948, and those children and grandchildren who didn’t remain religious simply kind of drifted away…they never rebelled, as did so many of the original settlers of places like Tel Aviv and the kibbutzim. So although approximately 1/3rd of the families in Tsfat consider themselves “hiloni” (based on the schools where they send their children – about 1/3rd of Tsfat’s kids learn in ultra-orthodox schools, 1/3rd in religious-zionist schools, and 1/3rd in non-religious schools), they are stridently traditional, and their homes are probably cleaner than mine when Pessach comes. There is no chametz anywhere to be found in the city – unless someone froze their bread before Pessach – and even the most non-Orthodox families have changed their dishes, boiled their silverware, and scoured their oven.

Thus, as of Monday, the day before the Seder (Israelis are only obligated to do one!) going to the supermarket was like walking through a maze…some shelves were full of food, and some were covered over with plastic, with “chametz” written over them.

Still and all, “making Pesach” was 100 times easier than the challenge that our friends’ son, wife, and two little daughters took upon themselves. This family had just spent 3 months in Goa, in Southern India, running a “Shalom House” for Israelis who wanted a bit of Judaism during their trek to the Far East. Goa is known as the drug capital of India, and many young Israelis end up there as they make their post-army excursions to Asia. Eliezer, his wife Carmit, and their 1 and 2 year old daughters spent 3 months in Goa, offering Shabbat hospitality to anybody who “dropped in” – they generally had about 150 drop-ins weekly. For Pesach, in addition to all the equipment that a family with two babies needs anyway, they took with them Pesach utensils and food which would suffice for all comers throughout Pesach – their estimate of 100 guests for the Seder was an underestimate by about 2/3rds, and they still have Shabbat and the end of the holiday to organize for their 300 guests!

As hard as it is for people to imagine, hundreds of people from all branches of Judaism spend their holidays in such situations. Tsfat, among other communities, sends dozens of its young people, singles and families, to organize Seders for Israelis who are trekking through India, Japan, China, Tibet, Vietnam, Thailand, the Himalayas, Columbia, Peru, Brazil, and many other spots where traveling Israelis can be found. Others go to communities in the Former Soviet Union – small towns in the Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, etc, to make sure that every Jew is able to attend a Seder.

These people return with incredible stories of their experiences. Their own “mesirat nefesh” (superhuman efforts) pale in comparison to the efforts that some of the people attending these Seders make to insure that they don’t miss the Seder – Israelis who hike for days to get to a “Seder Center” in time, elderly Russians who have secretly tried to maintain some semblance of a Pessach observance during the decades when it was impossible, and Jews who know barely anything of their heritage, but have somehow kept the spark alive that makes them yearn for a Passover Seder, though they barely know what it means.

The interesting thing about Pessach is that telling and retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt has been a cornerstone of Jewish belief since Judaism’s beginnings. The Torah demands that we pass the story of our ancestors’ flight from Egypt on to our children, and they to their children, and they to their children.

And we see it very clearly – that for so many Jews…Marranos in Spain who lived outwardly as Christians, Jews in Communist countries who were forced to hide all Jewish practices, and Jews who have yet to comfortably affiliate with the Jewish communities where they live…the Pessach Seder is the last tradition to go. Very few Jews who identify as Jews, even as “secular”, “assimilated”, or “non-practicing” forgo a Seder of some kind, with its final declaration “Next Year in Jerusalem”!

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