Living the Pessah story

The miracles and wonders of living in Israel during Passover

By
April 16, 2011 22:49
Matza making in Mea Shearim

mea shaarim matza reuters 311. (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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Pessah. It’s the perfect Jewish holiday for the Jewish state. All the ingredients are there: eating, celebrating, remembering.

It’s so natural that Israelis tend to take it for granted, but the festival which marks the Exodus from Egypt – a first step on the long journey to independence – takes on not only a special significance here but its own special flavor.

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The fact that the country runs according to the Jewish calendar in itself adds a different dimension to the holidays.

The supermarket chains have hidden their ordinary food products and boosted their displays of wine for the Four Cups.

The children are on vacation. Workplaces are giving gifts to employees. The National Insurance Institute has paid benefits early, to help cover the extra expenses.

Many offices and businesses will close but national parks and places of entertainment will be open and holding special activities. Once we journeyed into the desert with our unleavened bread; now we travel in air-conditioned cars and can buy kosher-for-Passover pizza in the shopping mall. It’s a strange way to commemorate the Exodus, but if it helps us appreciate our freedom, it can’t be all bad.

Having zoos which feed the animals unleavened food and dairy farms that switch the diet of the cows – this, too, is an only-in-Israel wonder.

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Added garbage collection as spring cleaning takes on epic pre-Pessah proportions; public places to kasher pots and pans. The signs in the stores wishing customers a happy holiday; the greetings in the street; the special supplements in the national papers; the festive programs in the electronic media – all these are signs of an Israeli Passover.

For me, the poster outside a Jerusalem hospital saying “Please don’t burn your hametz here” is definitely part of the modern Pessah experience. Ditto the group that gathers every year in the nearby park to ignite the remains of the leavened food – not far from the sign ordering “No fires allowed.” Kids are not only welcome, they’re expected.

There are special discounts on clothes (for the Seder), toys (for the finder of the afikoman), and toiletries and gift items (for the hostess).

Selling hametz is Pessah; so is buying flowers from the street vendor.

The question “Where are you for Seder night?” – annoying or touching according to your mood – and the utter togetherness of it all, extending way beyond each individual family, emphasizes the way the country is collectively experiencing the same frenzy of preparation and celebration.

And if this wasn’t enough: Speaking and hearing Hebrew peppered with its Pessah catchphrases and references is very Israeli. Dayenu.

All these and more are part of the modern miracle of celebrating Passover in the Promised Land. Even the most secular Israelis can’t help but mark the holiday in some way.

“IN EVERY generation....” we are each commanded to tell the story of the Exodus as if it had happened to us personally – just as every generation is ordered not to forget how Amalek struck us as we were leaving Egypt.

As if we could. In every generation there is a reminder that we might have our freedom but our enemies are still numerous, close by, and perhaps incensed more than ever that we continue to celebrate the Pessah story with its happy ending.

The Park Hotel massacre in 2002, in which 30 people were killed while celebrating the Seder in Netanya, is, sadly, now an inseparable part of the Pessah psyche for Israelis, just as the 1973 war will always be a part of Yom Kippur.

Despite our prayers, there is still no peace in the Promised Land.

So much of the country has been under missile fire that when a national newspaper recently published a special section of crosswords, quizzes and similar activities “for the missile-protected room,” it didn’t at first strike me as unnatural – and that in itself is shocking.

There is a unity forged from a shared fate, but every now and again a split shows.

This year, courtesy of WikiLeaks and Haaretz, the ethnic genie was once again freed from the bottle in time to embarrass would-be Labor leader Isaac Herzog ahead of the primary elections.

But never fear, politicians of all ethnic backgrounds will be celebrating Mimouna, the traditional Moroccan- Jewish festival, as soon as the holiday ends – on a day when Jews in the Diaspora are still marking Pessah, not noshing moufleta, “cigars,” and other traditional dishes.

It is, in fact, the battle of an older generation: Most of those in school today are curious about each other’s customs but solid enough in their Israeli identity to joke about their roots. (And not a few Ashkenazim have adopted the liberating Sephardi custom of eating kitniyot during Pessah.) There are, of course, all sorts of problems – as the recent strikes by the doctors and social workers made clear. But, it’s Pessah – we’ll worry about them, “aharei hahagim,” that wonderfully Israeli time zone “after the holidays.”

This is a time to celebrate our precious freedom, while remembering the price we paid for it.

Pessah is having an empty chair at the Seder for Israel’s missing soldiers – and a huge place in our hearts for the family of Gilad Schalit.

It’s worrying about how the members of the Fogel family are going to get through their meal, without the five who were slaughtered in their beds last month.

Pessah is so much a part of who we are that Israelis and other Jewish backpackers, no matter how far they are from home, seek out the comfort of a Seder together. We are not only commanded to tell the story, we need to tell it.

It occurred to me the other day that Israel has almost stopped believing in miracles while nevertheless relying on them. And there are some things that go way beyond our understanding: When an anti-tank missile hit a school bus near Gaza a week ago, was it a miracle that only one teenager and the driver were on it? Obviously not to the family of the critically wounded boy; definitely for those whose children had just disembarked.

There are all sorts of scientific theories to explain how the Red Sea parted, but the “why then?” is miraculous.

Why we celebrate Pessah is similarly easy to explain. That we continue to do so after thousands of years – that we still feel that each of us was part of the Exodus – that’s the miracle. That we end the Seder with the wish “Next year in Jerusalem” is understandable – that we are free to celebrate Pessah here, that’s Divine.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post. liat@jpost.com

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