Dipping into Mea She'arim

A stroll through the haredi heartland of Mea She'arim always makes for an interesting anthropological exercise. Outsiders amuse themselves attempting to distinguish members of the neighborhood's different hassidic sects by their distinct apparel, or musing on the modesty codes that oblige men and women to avert their gaze from each other. Participants of Beit Shmuel's pre-Pessah tour busied themselves with such observations last Thursday night. At first glance, the run-up to the holiday period appeared to offer little by way of new insights. It soon became apparent, however, that the most noteworthy aspect of the neighborhood's Pessah preparations took place behind the scenes. In makeshift matza factories scattered discreetly among houses and shops in the back streets of Mea She'arim, men of all ages toiled diligently into the small hours. Their completed products were to be sold in neighborhood bakeries. "Many consider eating handmade matza the highest form of adherence of the commandment to eat matza on Pessah, as the baker is far more involved in this process than the machine-baking process," explains guide Moshe Shapiro. In accordance with this tradition, the weeks leading up to Pessah see the neighborhood spawn a round-the-clock hand-baked matza industry from these basic premises, many of which are little more than decrepit basements. "Bakeries rent these locations because they're deserted for the rest of the year, and so haven't been exposed to hametz," continues Shapiro. "Obviously, the fact that they're barely used means that they're not kept in the best of states." Once molded, the matzot are passed through hatches into baking rooms and placed in huge furnace ovens with the aid of wooden sticks. The bakers, all of whom wear traditional haredi attire, bark orders at one another, reprimanding slackers and paying careful attention to the baking process to ensure that it is completed within the required 18 minutes. Any longer would render finished products hametz. Capturing the scenes on camera proves difficult, though, as their subjects are often less than willing to be photographed. They tolerate visitors grudgingly, viewing them as a distraction from their work. In many factories, the women of the tour group must be content with observing proceedings from the doorway, as their presence in the exclusively male-run factories is considered immodest. The next stop proves more hospitable. At a local yeshiva, Rabbi Haim Batzri imparts Kabbalistic insights into the holiday as well as sharing mystical stories from the period. One such tale is that of 16th-century rabbi, the Maharal of Prague's reported creation of a golem (an inanimate being made of raw materials) to protect the city's Jews from anti-Semitic attacks. The golem is said to have been created as a reaction to blood libels circulating among gentiles with regard to their Jewish neighbors. The tour group then joined the long line seeking blessings from Batzri's father and Kabbalistic mentor Rabbi David Batzri. Participants range from traditionally dressed haredi men to secular women, whose makeshift head coverings are easily distinguishable from the real thing. According to the rabbi's assistant, Pessah is one of the most popular times for getting rabbis' blessings. "In keeping with Jewish tradition, many people seek blessings from their rabbis in the run-up to major festivals," he explains. "At the same time, the holiday can also be a stressful period during which money worries and family disagreements come into sharp focus, and this leads many people who don't traditionally seek spiritual guidance to look for sources of blessing and reassurance." Having been honored with words of wisdom from Batzri, we make our way outside where Shapiro enlightens us to further indications of the upcoming holiday. The mounds of excess garbage around the refuse bins denotes fervent Pessah cleaning campaigns, he explains. 'The most telling aspect of this is the discarded clothes and furniture, which is a rare sight in a community that is hesitant to throw things away." Empty packaging next to mikvaot are another indicator of the holiday preparations. "Residents buy new Pessah crockery and cutlery, which must then be immersed in the ritual bath before use," explains Shapiro. A more common sight in the run-up to Pessah, he continues, is that of community members waiting in line to immerse their dishes in huge tubs of boiling water to render them kosher for Pessah. "Many people are too poor to have the option of buying new dishes for Pessah or owning a separate set of Pessah cutlery and are therefore left with no choice but to kosher their regular utensils before Pessah," says Shapiro. On busy Rehov Malchei Yisrael, shop windows are filled with Pessah food products and kitchenware. Come daylight, determined haredi shoppers will jostle each other for the best bargains for their large families. One infamous aspect of Mea She'arim life is given the Pessah treatment so as not to be thwarted by the onset of the holiday. The reproachful and sometimes provocative posters that line the neighborhood streets are generally affixed with a paste made of flour and water. An alternative Pessah paste made of potato flour, however, allows the neighborhood's strict codes of conduct to continue to be displayed.