By Gilya G. Schmidt
Greetings to All from Joe and Marion Goodstein, Shari and Avi Goodstein-Hilbuch and family, Carol Caplan, Yoseph and Leah Urso, Avi Shem Tov, Jo and Jacob Milgrom, Eliyahu Schleifer, Joe Gettinger, Lynn Sfat Portnoy, and David Morrison. Unfortunately I did not reach everyone during this whirlwind visit.
There is excitement in the air in Jerusalem, as indeed in the entire Jewish world, less than a week before Pesach 5767. The invitations have been extended to family and friends, the menus are made, families trek to the large supermarkets to stock up for the feast to come. The weather is still wintry at night, but beautiful, even warm during the day.
And all of Jerusalem is cleaning and kashering – the kitchen and the entire house and even beyond -- the little old lady downstairs pours water over her window sill and scrubs it with a brush, another neighbor washes the windows in the hallway and soaps down the stairs. Yet another homeowner sweeps the sidewalk in front of the house.
For most of the week before Pesach, families eat out for dinner, so as not to contaminate their freshly kashered kitchens. For Shabbat, and for a fee, the synagogue of friends offers families Friday night dinner. Families only have to bring dessert. I accept the invitation, and after a spirited Carlebach service, the sanctuary is transformed into a dining room where we enjoy a fine Shabbat meal. After years of experience, families have a plan all worked out for the ritual of getting ready for and through this holiday which is truly different from all others. My hostess in Jerusalem, Carol, prepares a delicious dairy meal for Shabbat lunch for her large extended family and some friends. At night we try to go out for coffee, but much to my disappointment, my favorite eatery, the Little Café, is closed, because they are kashering the restaurant for business during Pesach.
On Sunday night my former student and friend, Avi, comes to visit from Holon. Avi earned a degree in Logistics from UT in 2001. We last visited during my stay in Israel in 2002. We go out to eat at Ragu, a wonderful Italian restaurant on Derech Beit Lechem, and catch up on life in Israel and in the States. Ragu will be closed during all of Pesach.
On Monday morning, the Bagel Bite at the corner of Beit Lechem and Yehuda is doing a brisk business, as the whole Baka neighborhood lusts for one more breakfast with chametz. Should I have a bagel with cream cheese and lox or a chocolate crescent fresh out of the oven? I settle for the bagel, and café afuch, the counterpart to Starbuck's latte. The chametz has to be sold by 10 AM this morning. The next day the Jerusalem Post reports that a resident of Abu Gosh, Hussein Gaber, "bought all of the chametz owned by the State of Israel, value of $150 billion, for a down payment of NIS 20,000 ($5,000) (4/2/07, p. 5). After breakfast I catch the bus to Hebrew Union College on King David Street, my favorite library to work at, and get as much done as I can before they close. I have come to consult with my teacher, Professor Eliyahu Schleifer of Hebrew Union College, and to continue the research on hazzanut that I began five years ago. The previous week has been fruitful, but one is never finished. So every minute is precious, as the librarian warned me that they would close early. Sure enough, with at least twenty books of compositions in my booth, as I get ready to copy, the head librarian tells me that I have five minutes. It's a cloudy and cool day. As I clean up I nevertheless decide to go for a walk along Yemin Moshe on my way home. On Derech Beit Lechem the shop keeper in the boutique is sweeping the floor, while a man in the makolet scrubs the entrance way and the steps. All the aisles with products that are not kosher for Pesach have been curtained off with paper. Only items kasher l'Pesach are for sale. Coming from Knoxville, this is exciting. I can shop to my heart's content, one would think. Not so. Shopping for Pesach in Israel is a challenge, because Ashkenazi Jews don't eat kitniyot (legumes) for Pesach, while Sephardim do. Some packages are clearly labeled "bli kitniyot," without legumes, but others are not; thus, if one is Ashkenazi in Israel, shopping becomes a "chametz hunt" of a different kind. When I get home, my hostess has completed her preparations for Pesach. A week ago the boys, her nephews came, not quite with the blow torch, but close, with cleaners and brushes, and scrubbed her oven and behind her refrigerator. She has put away all of the chametz and is covering her counters with the annual Pesach shelving. The refrigerator, too, is prepared with foil, and the groceries, which have been kept apart from the chametz, are put away. We realize we need butter and bananas. The supermarket has closed, but the makolet is still open, so I race down the street to buy the required items. I realize I forgot a Jerusalem Post newspaper, but it's too late, they are all gone.
As the afternoon turns into evening, quiet begins to settle over our neighborhood. The previous week I bought a new Hagaddah, called "A Night to Remember," by Mishael Zion and Noam Zion of the Hartman Institute. It's a contemporary Hagaddah, with traditional Hebrew text, and many readings and reflections of meaning for our time, such as this one about the ten plagues. Shai Zarhi, an Israeli educator, writes about "The Ten Fears," which can also be plagues,
The plagues God visited on the Egyptians in Egypt seem to me to be a parade of people's greatest fears. They are a mythological show of the power of the living vs. primal fear. Starting from the blood of birth and of death, through primal human fears of small creatures (lice) and large ones (wild beasts), fear of financial ruin (locusts), fear of the dark (losing direction and meaning), we face the greatest fear: the fear of our children's lives – loss of the future. Tonight, a night to commemorate the past, we seek the mercy of God's protection, look out from our places at a world full of fears and dangers – and pray for another quiet year. (p. 81)
Although these reflections express some specific Israeli fears, Jews anywhere in the world today must be vigilant. Here I express my own fear, especially of the "new anti-semitism," which is hatred for Israel.
I have been reading parts of the Haggadah for several days, to get into the proper mood. Now it is time to light candles and to walk to our friends' house for the seder. Avi and Sheri, too, have a Knoxville connection. Sheri is the daughter of Joe and Marion Goodstein, and I am spending the seder in the company of long-time friends from Knoxville. Joe and Marion made aliyah last year. We are 17 for the seder, family and friends, and to my surprise, they are using the same Hagaddah that I bought, as they know the authors. The magic of the evening unfolds as Be'eri, the oldest son, conducts the seder. Everyone participates in the telling of the story, adding personal reflections and experiences to the traditional text. This year we also added a special prayer for the three abducted IDF soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev who were kidnapped on July 12 by Hizballah and for Cpl. Gilad Schalit who was abducted on June 25 by Gaza Strip terrorists. It reminds me of the times we used to add a special prayer for Russian and Syrian Jewry. After a delicious meal, we won't miss a song, or even part of a song, and when we have concluded the traditional songs for the seder it is not "Dayenu," and we continue singing, mostly Israeli songs. No one even thinks of the time. As we walk home, the only other people out are two young men who are talking and laughing as they pass us. When we get home we realize that it is 3AM! Needless to say, we miss shul the next day.
While in the U.S., Pesach barely gets a nod from the community at large, an article in the News Sentinel, if we are lucky, the Israeli press is as focused on Passover as is the individual Israeli. There are features on the spiritual freedom of Pesach (how we "ceased to be slaves…and became servants of the Hole One Blessed be He," JP Up Front 4/6/07, p. 9); about the B'nei Menashe community of India, many of whom made aliyah (JP Magazine 4/2/07); a heated debate about who built the pyramids (JP Magazine 4/2/07, p. 10); the problem with kitniyot even within Israel (JP Magazine 4/2/07, p. 12); what it means to be free (also from our own modern selves) ( JP Magazine 4/2/07, p. 14); the continuation of the blood libel (JP Magazine 4/2/07, p. 16); how to make the seder kid-friendly (JP Magazine 4/2/07, p. 18); how to appreciate the communal present (not just remember the communal past) (JP Magazine 4/2/07, p. 22); and hunting for chametz with the aid of dogs ( JP Magazine 4/2/07, p. 30). My favorite feature deals with Jerusalem's Ten Plagues, some of which we can understand as well: Burglaries, Poverty, Jerusalem Syndrome ("sudden and intense religious delusions which are triggered by visiting Jerusalem") (JP p. 11), Traffic jams, a Load of garbage, Disabled access, Car accidents, Movie theaters (unsatisfactory conditions); Property prices, the Prime Minister's residence (delay in construction which debeautifies neighborhood). (JP 3/30/07, pp. 10-15). But it isn't all bad. The Jerusalem Post of April 6, 2007 also points out how far Jerusalem has come since 1948. Perhaps the most obvious sign is the boom in construction, of new buildings and of the renovation and expansion of existing buildings, often by adding a floor or two.
Israel only celebrates seven days of Pesach, and only one day at the beginning and at the end as full holidays. All public institutions are closed during Hol HaMoed, and children have spring vacation. It is a time for visiting with family and friends. At all times of the day mothers and fathers push strollers along the sidewalk, with an entire tribe of children in tow. Everyone is in a festive mood. The country is full of Passover presents, in addition to the Afikomen. The Saturday night before Pesach, the popular Hasidic rock star Matisyahu played in Jerusalem, and all during Hol HaMoed selected museums around the country open their doors to the public without charge. There are many special programs geared to families. Every evening we are invited to different friends, some of them formerly from Knoxville, others long-time Israeli friends. We also venture outside of Jerusalem, to Har Homa where a friend has just moved into his new home. One day we take an hour-long bus trip to Tekoa, at the foot of Mount Herodian, one of King Herod's fortresses, to visit with Yoseph and Leah Urso, who made aliya a few years ago. Yoseph is also from Knoxville, he used to belong to Heska Amuna. We enjoy the traditional Pesach afternoon barbecue on their porch. One has the feeling of being set back in time to the Bible, to the time of Abraham. The Judean desert doesn't seem to have changed in four thousand years.
Every year we vow, "Next Year in Jerusalem," and we dream of what it would be like to celebrate the seder in the Eternal City. How wonderful when this happens!