Enjoying Passover in Jerusalem

    April 2011 Passover          
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Our Passover in Jerusalem

By Joanne Jagoda

Every year at the end of the Passover Seder we end with the plaintive wish…Next Year in Jerusalem, L’Shana Ha’ba B’rushalayim. Last year was the first time that our entire family fulfilled that promise.We convened there to spend the holiday with our oldest daughter Devora and son-in-law, Andy and our then two grandchildren. Andy and Devora, both native Californians, made aliyah six years ago and love living in Israel which means a lot of shlepping for their California families.

It was a thrill to arrive and see a huge sign at the airport, “Welcome for Passover” greeting international travelers coming “home” for a Jewish festival to the only Jewish country in the world. We landed on the Friday afternoon before the holiday having spent several days in Amsterdam. Breaking up the long flight was helpful and did much for lessening jet lag. It was also an experience filled with reflection as we walked through the Anne Frank House and the Jewish museum complex and were reminded that eighty thousand Dutch Jews perished in the Holocaust. At the Jewish museum I watched a film of a Dutch woman preparing for Passover. She was stressed out cleaning for the holiday trying to get her family to pitch in, a universal pre-Passover malady in observant homes.

Making our way through the boisterous greeting area at the airport was fun and loud as loved ones were met with balloons, flowers, and signs. My husband and I were picked up by Yakov, a taxi driver I had pre-arranged whom I had hired a number of times. It was almost like being met by family once we located each other in the throng of people. I immediately asked him about his new baby son whom he was expecting when I was in Israel the previous November. We chatted about Passover and about how he was spending it. He told me the family was getting together and his mother was busy cooking. Since his family is of Moroccan origin, he was looking forward to the traditional after Passover celebration, the Mimouna which his family would celebrate in a park with a barbeque, and he generously invited us to join them.

Our family lives in Kiryat Moshe, a religious neighborhood in northwest Jerusalem where the clothing style for men is primarily knit kippas and modern clothing. The women and older girls dress modestly with long skirts and blouses that cover most of their arms and married women wear colorful scarves wrapped over their hair in a variety of twists and styles. Besides native Israelis, there are Anglos (from Canada and England) in the neighborhood and one can hear French spoken as well on the street. There are perhaps five playgrounds within a short walking distance, and their apartment is ten minutes, (definitely within range of wonderful bakery smells) from the famous Angel’s bakery. Their apartment will be close to the new light railway on Herzel that will be done hopefully soon but at this rate, maybe not until the next century. The joke around Jerusalem is that the first passenger will be the Messiah.

Our children have a beautiful third floor penthouse apartment with an elevator that conveniently goes to their front door. It really helps when juggling baby strollers and groceries and the grandchildren but on Shabbat and yom tov we trek up the back stairs. Directly across from their apartment is our granddaughter’s gan (nursery school) which is so close that we can see her from the balcony playing in the yard. Atara, “Ati” was four last year and totally fluent in English which her parents speak to her and Hebrew which she learns in gan including being able to roll her “r’s” and effortlessly doing the back of the throat, “ch’s. She only speaks English to us but we can occasionally catch her chatting in Hebrew when she plays with her dolls as she associates playtime with the Hebrew she uses in gan. The eighteen month old, Eliana, aka, “Lullie” attended a nearby small family nursery school down the street. She was learning English and interspersed it with Hebrew frequently saying “mah zeh?” (what’s this?) or henay (here). We are “Savta” and Poppa and the other doting California grandparents are Zema ( short for aba’s ema and Zabah ( for aba’s abba). Eliana now a year older is completely fluent in Hebrew.

We were very fortunate to be able to rent an apartment for Passover on their floor which happened to be between tenants. This apartment was pretty basic, but came with a special feature you could not get at any fancy hotel. Every morning we had a 6:30 AM wake up with persistent knocking at the door and two little squirming girls crawling into bed with us which we loved. It is very difficult to be so far away from our adored grandchildren. However what is remarkable is that with today’s technology, Skype and phone calls to Israel utilizing an American area code (through Vonage), communication is frequent and excellent. I remember my first trip to Israel in the 1970’s when making a phone call to the states was a challenge. The girls are totally familiar with us and their other grandparents as they see us almost every day even if it is only for a few minutes and speak to their extended family, aunts, uncles and cousins, often as well. They were waiting for us on the street and as soon as we got out of the taxi they jumped into our arms for hugs and kisses without any hesitation.

Having arrived a few days before the Seder I was able to help my daughter (then expecting their third child) and son-in-law with cooking and preparations. Though the house was mostly clean and ready, it was interesting to see how they finished koshering the kitchen, covering surfaces and preparing it for Passover, as everyone does this a little differently. The excitement of Passover was palpable on the street with everyone rushing around. The shopping area near their house was totally congested with impatient honking drivers, even more frantic than usual and streets filled with harried shoppers (think Christmas Eve in the States.) The house wares stores had lines almost out the door and the food markets were packed.

A new, very large super market opened just in time for Passover and they were only stocked with Passover items. I wanted to bring a stash of paper goods to save on washing dishes and Andy laughed after informing me that there was a whole store in their neighborhood with only disposable paper goods for Passover and year round use. The days of needing to bring toilet paper to Israel are long gone! The products available in Jerusalem for Passover are staggering and our kids had purchased food for a small army. They regularly have organic produce delivered which comes straight from a farm. Our little kitchen across the hall was designated for dairy food prep and the frig was filled with a huge variety of excellent Israeli dairy products and cheeses which we rarely see in the states. We were the dairy matzoh brei headquarters and their kitchen was left for meat meal preparation.

I was able to see first hand some of the unique communal aspects of the Passover celebration living in a religious neighborhood. The morning of the Seder there were bins scattered about the streets for burning the last chametz, which one does with a special prayer. There was a smoky pall in the air, and I watched men and women with children tagging along throwing their chametz into the fire. Another convenience was koshering stations. Large pots of boiling water were available for a few shekels for dishes or utensils which could be koshered through immersion in boiling water. It was funny to see some “drive by” koshering with someone handing their utensils out of their car window then circling around to pick them up. The local mikves were also used for toiveling, the required immersion in water of certain new utensils in before use.

The night before the Seder we were in the traditional no man’s land in the kitchen when it came time for dinner. Almost all the chametz was gone and the kitchen was turned over for Passover, so there was a full refrigerator with nothing to eat. This was not an issue in Jerusalem as we hauled over to a local hamburger restaurant, packed with starving people getting in their last chametz during these awkward transitional hours. It was a sight with religious families, yeshiva students, and tourists like us lined up for thick juicy hamburgers with all the trimmings and don’t forget the “chips”, French fries. Some restaurants completely close for Passover while other scour and prepare Passover menus with signs that say kitniyot or no kitniyot. This is a distinction which determines whether legumes, corn or rice, kitniyot are used in cooking, which is an acceptable Sephardic tradition. Because we are of Ashkenazik background, we were of the no kitniyot club though we thought how nice it would be to be Sephardic for this holiday!

In Israel there is only one Seder so you put all effort into that one night. My granddaughter was so excited about Seder and refused to take a nap. She wanted to be in her special Pesach dress (of course supplied by her Savta) from about 9:00 AM. Even at age four last year, she was well versed in the whole story and could recite at length about Paroh and Moshe, knew the four questions like a champ and could rattle off the ten plagues and a variety of songs. The Pesach preparation in her gan starts right after Purim and seeing her so engaged with the little Seder plate she made and Kiddush cup she decorated and following along next to her abba was worth the whole trip to Israel . At about 10:30 PM she finally lost steam and collapsed on the sofa.

The Pesach week with the schools closed as well as many offices is a time that most of Israel seems to take to the roads and go on excursions. We made a trek down to the Dead Sea in two rented cars, and I enjoyed the ride despite the traffic jam. I marveled at the contrasts of the ancient and modern; cars filled with travelers, road signs naming ancient cities, a camel lounging on the side of the road, Beduoin camps visible adjacent to the highway, shepherds on a mountainside tending to a flock and the Qumran caves off in the hills. We spent the day at the Crowne Plaza and did the requisite float in the Dead Sea and enjoyed an elaborate buffet lunch. We were taken aback to see large sandwiches for sale at the poolside bar at this strictly Kosher for Pesach hotel, until we found out these were Passover potato rolls which look exactly like real bread. Later in the week we tasted them at a restaurant and they were really good. I felt like I was “cheating” to eat something so light and tasty that was a welcome substitute for matzoh.

On the ride home from the Dead Sea we sat in traffic again but the gold and violet sunsets were a feast. I glanced off the road and there was a family next to their van silhouetted against the sunset stopping to pray the evening service, women on one side and men on the other. Only in Israel could you see this. In many places there were cars parked along the roads where campers stopped to spend the night.

Another day trip was to the Jerusalem zoo, a favorite location for my granddaughters. We took a cab there which got us down to the zoo but anyone who drove had to park at a soccer field and be shuttled down to the entrance in buses which unloaded large families and strollers. Because it was Hal ha’Moed, the intermediate days of the holiday, the religious observe these days by not working and also take time off. The contrast of families gathered there is the essence of the amazing city that Jerusalem is and is a microcosm of what it means to be in Israel.I watched large religious families, with fathers wearing fur shtreimels ( round hats) and long silk frock coats dressed up grandly because of Hal Ha Mo’ed, pushing strollers with a passel of other children following often dressed in matching colored shirts. It dawned on me there was a practical rather than religious reason for this. Mothers could keep tabs on their large broods easier when they were in the same color.

The snack bar had kosher for Passover chips, sodas, candy and ice cream. Families gathered on the beautiful grounds for big picnics with matzoh and a variety of foods. I could see which families ate kitniyot and which did not. There was a beautiful Ethiopian clan gathered for a big picnic. Where else in the world could men and boys in traditional garb go out for a day at the zoo and be part of the scene without getting a second glance from the secular Israelis in their shorts and mini skirts. I was also struck by the sight of a father pushing his stroller with a revolver tucked in to the back of his pants, the grim reality of living in a country where the packed zoo could be a perfect terrorist target (heaven forbid.) The biggest issue seemed to be lost children with a loud speaker that frequently called out names of “lost emas” and where to find their children. There were very interesting biblical animals and exquisite birds but we could not focus on them as we were occupied trying to keep our little ones from getting lost. I vowed to return again when there would not be such a huge crowd.

After Pesach, which is one day shorter than in the States, we helped turn the kitchen back and pack up the dishes. Andy had me accompany him at 11:00 PM on a short trek to Angel’s Bakery where grain is shuttled to the bakery via a large overhead pipe from the granary across the street. The air was filled with heady smells as baked goods were back in the ovens. He wanted me to see the early shoppers lined up on the steps getting the first rolls and pastries after Pesach, though we waited until the next morning for our treats.

This year in Jerusalem ? I’m afraid not, but Pesach last year with all our family together was an experience I will never forget.


from the April 2011 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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