April 20, 2000
Out to a (Matzah) Lunch
Report: Anti-Semitic acts down, despite acts of violence in 1999
Passover in Israel is a blockbuster week when the country acts not only Israeli, but overwhelmingly Jewish as well. The air turns electric far in advance. Supermarkets are jammed, ringing up the highest sales all year. Matzahs are sold in packages the size of small suitcases, with people buying more than they could ever possibly need. Thirty million dollars are expected in wine sales alone.
Messengers on motorcycles clog the roads delivering endless bouquets of flowers and gift baskets. A pet shop even displays "doggie" gift baskets containing Passover treats for a beloved pet. People send gifts to their mail carriers, their doctors, and the staffs of their apartment buildings, and presents are exchanged within families. Almost every business gives Passover gifts to its workers, which have come to be viewed as integral components of their compensation. The average amount spent on an employee gift this year was $120.
Government offices ended a strike this month just in time to go back to work a few days before shutting down for the entire holiday. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis leave the country for vacation abroad. Because the Ministry of the Interior, which issues passports, was also on strike, those whose passports had expired risked canceling their trips, and when the strike ended, long lines of relieved would-be travelers immediately formed.
Border crossings into the Sinai are subject to waits of up to three hours as thousands of Israelis get back to nature in the desert. Hotels throughout the country are filled to capacity with local tourists and visitors from abroad. Nature festivals are planned in forests. Children jam amusement parks, many of them on outings from unions or large institutions that organize trips for the offspring of employees.
Controversy arose when the army announced plans to put soldiers to work making their bases "kosher for Passover". In addition, the army issued regulations that food packages mailed to soldiers would not be allowed if they included products containing flour, and even shaving kits had to be certified as suitable for Passover use.
A whole subindustry sells goods with the religious seal of Passover approval. Everything from instant coffee to pickles to soda bears a stamp. As one grocer philosophically put it, "It raises the prices -- but everyone needs to make a living." Local firms even market kosher-for-Passover lipstick and shampoo.
As soon as the holiday starts, the supermarkets tape plastic sheeting to cover the racks of all foods out-of-bounds on Passover. But people have been seen to open the tape and fish out boxes of spaghetti without incurring any problems when they arrive at the checkout counter. Many restaurants close for the whole week rather than surmount the kitchen difficulties. Yet whereas once in Israel bread on Passover could be found only in Arab towns, in today's cosmopolitan culture everything goes. Fast food chains like Burger King and McDonald's stay open for the booming holiday traffic, proffering grayish hamburger buns made from matzah meal. On the evening that the holiday ends, falafel stands traditionally reopen with fresh pitas -- and hungry crowds acting as if they hadn't eaten bread in a year.
Holiday eve will see bumper-to-bumper traffic on all the roads as families travel to attend seders. But what about the invisible numbers who are without means or family to celebrate? There is a national hotline for food contributions. A religious radio station broadcasts its phone number and acts as a clearinghouse, matching those who want to attend a seder with generous people willing to host.
The country takes a break from itself for the holiday. People who want to fix their broken vacuum, visit the dentist, or order a paint job may well arrive at the entrance only to find a sign hanging from the doorknob: "Out to a (matzah) lunch."