Is this Pessah different?

J'lem establishments won't change their hametz policies this year, say restaurant owners.

aroma 224.88 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
aroma 224.88
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
The ancient question "Why is this night different" may have a different and somewhat unexpected connotation this year. A ruling on April 3 by Local Affairs Court Judge Tamar Bar-Asher-Tsaban limiting the extent of the 1986 Prohibition on the Display of Hametz Law has infuriated religious leaders and lawmakers and threatens to upset the delicate balance between secular and Orthodox in the capital. Last year the municipality filed lawsuits against four non-kosher eateries and a mini-market for failing to pay fines issued for selling hametz (leavened products). Bar-Asher-Tsaban's ruling, however, determined that the allegations in the charge were incorrect and therefore had to be dropped (see box). The 1986 law states that "No merchant will display a hametz product in public for purchase or consumption." In her 13-page ruling, Bar-Asher-Tsaban distinguished between tziburi - a public space that one chooses to be in, such as a restaurant - and pumbi - an open public space that one cannot avoid, such as an open-air market. The word used by the 1986 Hametz Law to describe "public space" is farhessia, whose meaning is closer to pumbi. In other words, the judge explained in her ruling, if you sell bread at a restaurant during the week of Pessah, you're within the boundaries of the law because it is a closed space and leavened products cannot be seen by passersby. On the other hand, anyone selling hametz in the Mahaneh Yehuda market, for example, would be breaking the law because it constitutes an open public space - in other words, if you go there to shop, you can't avoid the display of hametz for sale. The consequences of the ruling remain to be seen, among them the question of whether more businesses in Jerusalem will sell hametz products this Pessah than in the past. ACCORDING TO attorney Gilad Barnea, who represented Restobar, one of the five businesses indicted, the recent ruling on the Hametz Law will not cause any major change on the ground. "Not one of them [defendants] had in mind a revolutionary concept. They just fought back because this time, the municipality, through [Mayor Uri] Lupolianski's inspectors, hit their pocket, that's all," he says. "I don't think there will be any dramatic change in the hametz situation in the city - I don't foresee groceries and supermarkets openly selling tons of bread during Pessah. "The only change, perhaps, will occur in pizzerias. They are, in fact, the sole [establishments] who have to show what they sell, and in Jerusalem the only non-kosher pizzeria operating is Chili's [one of the defendants]." Lehem Erez, a non-kosher bakery and delicatessen on Sderot Herzog, is unusually crowded so close to Pessah. Despite Bar-Asher-Tsaban's ruling permitting the venue to sell hametz, the general management of the bakery chain has decided to close over the weeklong holiday of Pessah, as it has for the past four years. Even though Erez Komarovsky, the founder and owner of the bakery, has more than once voiced in the media his pro-secular positions regarding issues of kashrut, Lehem Erez will be closed as of Friday afternoon until the end of Pessah. A patron of the bakery says that he has prayed every year that Komarovsky would change his policy and open over Pessah. The latest decision by the Local Affairs Court had given him hope that this year things would be different, but "once again I was disappointed and I will have to get along with the pitot from the eastern side of the city," he says. Danny, co-owner of the kiosk at the end of Derech Beit Lehem, says he doesn't understand Bar-Asher-Tsaban's ruling. "Our kiosk is kosher. We serve meat sandwiches, and though we also sell dairy products, we keep a strict separation between the two," he says. "We make the kiosk kosher for Pessah each year; most of out clients are either religious or at least traditional. "But I know that even those who throughout the year eat in non-kosher restaurants will feel uneasy sitting in a place that serves hametz during Pessah," continues Danny. "So what's the use of doing it? Besides that, I, of course, think nobody has the right to tell anyone what to eat - that's exactly the attitude in Iran or Gaza, do we want to look like that? "I am observant and wouldn't dream of eating hametz, but there's nothing that gives me or anyone else the right to tell my neighbor what to eat or not," he says. "So in my opinion, at least as far as Jerusalem is concerned, I don't think there will be any change this year [as a result of the ruling]. Those who are not kosher and who will open during the holiday will sell hametz, but I am sure that no one, besides, perhaps, the Restobar and Chili Pizza - will openly display hametz. As for the others, they will either make their businesses kosher for Pessah, like me, or just close for the week - nothing else." At the Aroma coffee shop at Hadar Mall in Talpiot, the question of whether or not they will sell hametz strikes the shift supervisor as strange. "We're kosher, what hametz do you expect us to sell?" he asks. I remind him that Aroma wasn't always kosher and that about three years ago the branch on Rehov Emek Refaim used to sell bread during Pessah. "I don't know, I didn't work at Aroma then," he responds. On the other hand, Osho, a bar and restaurant downtown, will sell bread this Pessah, "as we have done for the past four years," says David, the shift supervisor. When asked if, as a result of the new ruling, hametz would be more prominently displayed, David replies: "The bread will come from the kitchen every time a client will ask for it." Yehuda Assalan, owner of Link restaurant, Mona restaurant, Yehoshua Bar and the new Za-Za restaurant-bar, intends to sell hametz, but not bread. "Link is not kosher all year long. It will be open during Pessah, as every year, and I can assure you the cakes we will serve there are not made from potato flour. But we will not serve bread or pitot," he says. "For me, it's a symbol, I am a Jew; I will not serve bread and even less display it publicly, and believe me, I am not the only one who acts that way here." "IT'S CLEAR to us that Mayor Lupolianski was motivated by a strictly political agenda," says Barnea. "We are in an election year. Last Pessah, when the violations were recorded and someone gave the instruction to use them for indictments, for the first time ever, it was out of sheer political interest. "This mayor [Lupolianski] has to prove to his public [the haredim] that he is doing his utmost to preserve the Jewish character of the city, especially after his failure to prevent the gay pride parade. The problem is that he is using our taxes - and I mean our taxes, [those of] the secular residents, since they, the haredim, hardly pay arnona [property tax] - to promote his own political agenda, which is also his fight against non-kosher restaurants and bars in the city, and that's unbearable." "The haredim in this city are a minority, just like the Alawis in Syria," says Restobar owner Shahar Levy. "It's about time we, the secular people living here, get back our rights. Do you know what happened after the judge's decision? Plenty of people, mostly young ones, showed up here and declared that they had came to show support and added that they were all ready to go to the streets to protest. "I had to calm them down, I told them we had won and there was no need to go to the streets, at least for the moment," adds Levy with a laugh. "I think it's the end of the era of the secular [residents] shutting up; we are going to fight back for our city. I'm telling you, it's a turning point." City council opposition member Meir Turgeman sees it differently: "I don't understand these people [defendants]," he says. "I am in opposition to Mayor Lupolianski, this is no secret, but in this particular case, I think he is acting reasonably. Most of the residents of this city are either observant or at least traditional - so most of them would be against selling hametz and especially bread openly during Pessah. "That doesn't mean that anyone - including City Hall - should inquire as to what's in your kitchen or on your table. I am religious, but I strongly advocate the position 'Live and let live,' as long as the public space respects what is important to the majority," continues Turgeman. "After all, bread and hametz can be found in enough places in the city, and don't forget the Old City. So it's not a situation where secular people's right to purchase hametz during Pessah is denied. DOWN ON King George Avenue, one tourist agrees with Turgeman. "Don't be offended," says Avraham Azulay from France, "but really, I don't understand what's gotten into you Israelis. My family and I come here because we wish to spend the holiday in a Jewish atmosphere, something we cannot find in France or anywhere else outside Israel. Now you're telling me that as of this year I might see bread on display for sale in the grocery or the supermarket around the corner? In that case, why would I keep coming here? Why should I spend money to come here, why did I buy a flat here in Jerusalem, if upon arriving here I will see hametz in the streets just like in Paris, where I live?" "The question is, do we want to live in a free city or do we want to resign and accept the rule of a haredi minority that will turn this city into a new Bnei Brak?" asked city councilor Sa'ar Netanel (Meretz), who supported the defendants against City Hall in court. "I believe that we, the majority of residents here, the secular and all the non-haredim, should not agree with this gross intrusion into our private life. I see it as a continuum of things with the same common denominator: the gay parade, which he [Lupolianski] tries year after year to prevent, the right of residents to eat what they wish - it's all the same and it's about time we say loud and clear that we will not surrender anymore." Not surprisingly, Deputy Mayor Yehoshua Pollack disagrees. "I think it's a real case of hypocrisy," he says. "The religiously observant public began to ask questions and apply pressure. They asked us - and not only haredim - why we apply the law when a resident in a religious quarter closes a balcony without a permit, while we do not apply the Hametz Law. "We were asked hard questions, we had to provide answers. No one can expect us to apply the law to the haredi residents, and close our eyes to lawbreakers if they are secular. "Imagine what would have happened if an attorney from the haredi community would have sued us for not applying the law against those who openly sell hametz?" he says. "So we had to act and the mayor was right; he had to send the inspectors and file indictments. That's the law, what should we do differently?" In response to Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz's decision to support the local court's ruling regarding the sale of hametz on Pessah, Lupolianski decided to try a personal approach: In a letter addressed to the owners of non-kosher restaurants and cafés, he asked them to refrain from selling hametz. "He is very saddened by the new situation and he announced that he is ready to meet each restaurant owner personally to convince them not to sell hametz," says his spokesman, Gidi Schmerling. David Silovitzki, owner of Lehem Tushia, a renowned bakery in Rehavia, sees it differently. "I am secular, but the bakery is strictly kosher. So on Pessah we're closed and I am not directly concerned. But I must say that in my opinion, it's an own goal for the owners [of restaurants and coffee shops]," says Silovitzki. "In Jerusalem, most people don't know exactly what's kosher and what's not. Besides those who are very observant, most of the residents here are what we call traditional. They don't mind sitting in a non-kosher restaurant, as long as it's not too obvious. But once these places sell bread during Pessah, they will not go there anymore; this is going too far and they will take their business elsewhere. So what's the gain here?"