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Passover, French-Hill style

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By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–French Hill is a largely secular Jewish neighborhood, with families who are religious and ultra-Orthodox, as well as a few Arab families and Arab plus East Asian singles and young couples who are students at the nearby university. The neighborhood synagogues are one Ashkenazi, one Sephardi, one mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi, one Conservative, and one in a family home that attracts its own minyan. Like typical secular Israelis, we do not attend any except for occasional participation in a bar mitzvah or some other ceremony hosted by a friend.

I could not miss the holiday atmosphere during my morning walk on the morning before the Seder. Families were packing their cars for a trip to wherever they would spend the evening. Others were carrying out trash or scrubbing something at the curb, either to scrounge out the last possibility of a bread crumb, or simply observing a ritual seen long ago as children. Here the air is not heavy with the burning of hametz (products forbidden to be consumed on Passover). I saw only one man, in kipa, putting some scraps into a fire.

I perceived long ago that a primary attraction of Israel was the possibility to participate in the life of a vibrant Jewish community without the obligation to sit through long and uninspiring rituals, or listening to a rabbi intoning endlessly about the obvious. I have learned a great deal about Jewish thought, history, and practice since coming here. My sources have been conversations with friends, colleagues, my Israeli wife and relatives, reading literature that is more analytical than than theological, studying Talmud with a religious friend who is more social scientist than preacher, and absorbing–either as background or occasionally more than that–what the media provides on the Sabbath and during every holiday season.

In anticipation of Pesach, the media detailed the foods and rituals of the numerous communities, as well as interpretations and formulations of the ritual that most Israeli Jews will employ for their Seder. A hundred thousand or so evade the event by flying overseas, but upwards of 80 percent of Israeli Jews participate in a Seder. More will take advantage of the enforced vacation from public institutions and private sector firms by flying overseas after the Seder, or filling the hotels and bed and breakfasts of the Galilee. It will not be possible to buy bread or other hametz in the supermarkets or most small groceries, but there are no religious police to keep the unobservant from eating what they have stocked up in anticipation of the constraints, or finding their way to a restaurant or bakery in an Arab village or the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, Jaffa, or Acco.

Media discussions focused on the content of the Haggadah that serves as the focus of the ritual emphasize variations in the religious text, as well as the large number of versions produced by secular kibbutzim, feminists, gays/lesbians, and Christians who wish to participate in the spirit of the holiday, but not necessarily in all of the Jewish ritual.

We work our way through a traditional Haggadah, with interruptions for some explanations of why this or that, but all those fluent in Hebrew since childhood will stumble over the Aramaic. The Haggadah comes out of the Talmud, and like that source it manages to convey a story, but with twists and detours elusive even for those who understand the words. Unlike the Talmud, most versions of the Haggadah lack the explanations for the obtuse provided by a thousand years of commentators. One can thank the Almighty for the omission, and the incomplete discussions associated with it. Otherwise we would be at the table until Shavuot.

The eats are good. The wine far better than the bitter stuff from Manischewitz I had to endure as an American child, and the songs a joyous end to a long evening.

May you have a good holiday, however you do it, or comprehend all that you do.

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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