Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pictures from a Jerusalem Pesach Exhibition

Friday before Pesach. I attempt to shop at the open fruit and vegetable market of Machane Yehuda. It’s not yet totally crazed but very close. The baker calls out, “Pita: end of season sale!” The deli guy jokes with me that the noodle kugel I buy for Shabbat lunch is already kosher-for-Passover. Pungent piles of fresh purplish garlic line the stalls: some Sephardic families will gently and laughingly whip each other with the long green stalks at the Seder to remind themselves of the Egyptian taskmasters. Dates are on sale everywhere, as most Sephardic charoset recipes are based on them. I snag the last kilo of good Medjols for half price. There are lots of posters advertising “yeshiva bochurs” who will clean and kasher your kitchen for you.
Sunday is Palm Sunday and we hear the church bells ringing. There is a beautiful processional in the Old City, singing hosannas and waving palm branches. We bring our dishes to be kashered in the communal boiling water “hagalat keilim” in our neighborhood. We go out to our favorite Italian restaurant for our last chametz pasta dinner and the owner who made aliyah from Rome 30 years ago sings us the Four Questions in Italian.
The day of Erev Pesach we burn our chametz in a convenient chametz-fire right in front of our apartment building that someone else had started earlier in the day. Kids and families and couples keep coming by to “use” the fire and toss their last bread pieces in. The whole neighborhood smells like a campfire.
The night of the ONE Seder we walk to our family along with scores of other folks dressed in their holiday best converging by foot and car to their relatives, laden down with casserole dishes and flowers. On the way home—at 4 a.m.— we see a small group of punky looking teenagers returning home from their Seder, acting out just a little in their too-tight skirts, smoking and laughing from the four cups of wine they made sure to drink religiously. As they pass, I hear one of them say, “Don’t look at me that way—my grandfather was a Rabbi!”
First day of chol hamoed and people are out in full force. I have never seen so many cars and so many people on the streets of Jerusalem. Here is a typical picture of what I saw on just one street downtown: three Chasidic men in gold caftans, white knickers, white belts and huge shtreimels; a Russian Orthodox priest in a long black robe standing in front of a downtown hotel giving out blessings while people lined up to kiss his ring; secular Israelis eating kosher-for-Passover crepes; and lots and lots of American tourists looking a little shell-shocked by the kosher-for-Passover Ben and Jerry’s.
We attend a picnic on chol hamoed at Liberty Bell Park, along with many other families, and we form a circle to sing spring songs and do a unique and special ceremony called Birkat Ha-ilanot: Blessing of Flowering Fruit Trees. There is an old Kabbalistic custom to go out sometime in the month of Nisan—preferably out of the city but in Jerusalem it’s possible to do it right in any park—find a newly flowering fruit tree, and say a special blessing: You are Blessed, our G-d and G-d of our ancestors; Your world lacks for nothing, and You have created beautiful creations and beautiful trees, so that we may be able to enjoy them. You can only say this on a tree that has started to flower, and though we sat under budding olive trees we could not find any flower. However after the picnic we decided to go to one of the city’s museums and right there, right on the branch of an olive tree planted right in the middle of the sidewalk, we saw our first flower, and chanted the blessing as buses and cars whizzed by. 
Passover is Hag Ha-aviv, the Spring Holiday. Spring has definitely sprung. There is joy and cleanliness in the air, new clothes and new shoes and new expectations, and though we feel a bit heavy eating too much matzah, there is a sort of lightness we cannot fully explain.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Be Happy; It's Adar

Purim in Israel is a hoot. Costumes everywhere, like Halloween on steroids. Everybody dresses up, there are lots of parties, the merchants in Machane Yehuda don wigs and give out free hamentashen (called "Haman's ears" here- oznei Haman.) Two solid weeks before Purim the kids stop having "real" school and it's all about celebrating.

The fun is supposed to start on Rosh Hodesh Adar.

Last year, I wrote in the CJN about my experience with Women of the Wall on Rosh Chodesh Adar in Jerusalem: the rage I experienced coming from the men’s side, the fear from the women’s side, and my own disheartenment while praying with this group of sincere women at Judaism’s holiest site.

One year later, again on Rosh Chodesh Adar, I went to the Wall to pray with them. This time, there were close to 200 women gathered there, as since the arrest of Nofrat Frenkel for the “crime” of wearing a tallit the monthly prayer sessions have grown larger and larger in support of the idea that any Jew should be able to pray at the Kotel as they wish. This time, there was a large contingent of Masorti kids from the Israeli Conservative youth movement flanking us on either side. This time many male supporters came and stood on the men’s side nearest the mechitza, forming a sort of protective barrier between us and the men climbing on chairs to scream and curse at us. (For Adar the screamers brought a bull horn so we could hear them call us “Amalekites” more clearly.) This time we were protected not only by male police, but also by male army officers called in to help when haredi women tried to aggressively break us up by entering the tightly-knit group and physically pushing us out of the plaza. How odd it was to be praying behind a row of bare-headed male soldiers in the women’s section. When the haredi women became vocally abusive, shrieking at us (we are Christian lesbian Reform blasphemers) we kept on singing Hallel. Purim Shpiel meets Mahatma Gandhi.

There is something profound about singing in the face of people yelling at you. I thought of chanting the Megillah which reminds us that change comes from within us. I thought of Queen Esther going against the odds.  I thought of how everyone just wants to be a little of someone else every now and then, and about how we are supposed to get so drunk that we don't know the difference between our enemies and our friends. What a way to start the month of fun and games.

It struck me later that when we read from the Megillah at the end of chapter one about the threat of women not obeying their husbands, and the sarcastic decree which went forth from Ahashverosh commanding each man to be "king in his own castle" after Vashti refused to be degraded, we really read about the way society perceives the power of women as a national and cosmic threat. Instead of seeing the Women of the Wall as a sincere group of ohavei haShem, some Jews see us only as a threat to the system. Would that they could hear the Megillah as a mocking critique of this kind of drunken, irrational fear of women gathering and expressing their humanity, not as a justification for it.

I went to Megillah reading worrying a lot about the Rosh Hodesh gathering, but of course got carried into the Purim spirit soon after. Purim evening was rainy and cold. I love that Israelis never complain at all about the rain; they call it "geshmai bracha" or rains of blessing. Purim day was sunny and everyone was in a good mood in Jerusalem; the bus drivers wore funny hats and lots of kids came in from yeshivas all over the country to revel in Jerusalem's special day (Jerusalem celebrates Purim a day later than everyone else in the world because it is a walled city and the Megillah says walled cities celebrate a day later! But only cities with walls from the time of Joshua.) Everyone seemed to be smiling.

And they don't start stressing about Pesach the day after Purim. Matzah doesn't appear on store shelves with the ominous warning that this is all there will be of the brand of egg matzah that you like. The prices don't skyrocket within days. Most Israelis don't stockpile gross over-processed "ready to bake" Pesach products. So it's life as usual for another few weeks till the ONE--I repeat--ONE Seder! How civilized can you get?