April 30, 2009

Preparing for Pesach Tzfati-style

I’m just trying to get back to earth after experiencing an incredible Pesach in Tzfat. Our day-to-day life seems so ‘normal’ and strange after our wildly busy but fulfilling Pesach vacation. It all started with the regular pre-Pesach preparations, but this time with a twist. We were spending our first Passover in our home in Tzfat. We really felt Pesach was in the air in a very intense way.

In Tzfat, it feels like spring is in the air. The skies are a fresh deep blue and a breeze is blowing strong, helping with the cleaning in its own way, drying off the drapes, tablecoths, bedding. The grape vines are bursting forth, shooting out a collection of fresh leaves each day, and twisting along banisters, rocky walls and up posts. I was able to harness some new shoots just in time, trying to redirect them in a horizontal line. Last year, our grapes grew straight down – not a bad position if one is lying prone and wants to much on a bunch with the twist of a wrist.

April 1 – Pesach Preparations
As each day passed, bringing the holiday that much closer, the cleaning in the neighboring homes picked up with a frenzy. In the old city, homes are very close together, windows are wide open and soapy water is spilled onto the cobbled sidewalks. There is a pervasive smell of bleach in the alleys. Every visible surface is scrubbed and then covered in either plastic or foil.

Young children were out of school and playing outside, throwing around a ball, scooting on their bikes and dearly chewing pieces of pita from small plastic bags, banished from bringing the chametz inside. The kids are all excited, practicing their Pesach songs with each other. The older ones are busy helping the moms, sweeping out the courtyards, hanging up the laundry, hauling out the boxes of Passover dishes and polishing the silver. One day, I saw four baby strollers scrubbed shining in the sun, drying off on a rooftop. People also use this time to get rid off garbage, old clothing, broken shelves, chairs - even couches. Lukily the new mayor is on top of garbage in Sfat these days. And the trucks come around daily in the early morning hours, picking up everyone’s discarded junk.

The regular Wednesday morning market became a twice a week affair and was so crowded it was almost impossible to pull my granny like shopping cart through. My kids keep telling me how uncool I am bumping over the cobbled streets with my yucky green plaid cart. But I feel like I am part of the scenery – except fort those totally cool Ethiopian women who place all of the bags and bundles atop their heads and then march uphill without missing a beat.

Market vendors were aggressively selling their wares and buyers were scrutinizing every agura they spent. Our list was long and detailed and we basically bought everything in this one outdoor market: vegetables, nuts, silver foil, pans, glass cups, garlic press, scrubbers, needles and thread, Passover afikoman prizes, and a large, very daunting piece of horseradish for the seder plate. We even picked up some clothes for the children – paying 10 shekels for shirts and skirts!

As we returned home with the masses of other shoppers, I noticed that the midrechov, the main street was bustling. Stores were so full, their wares spilled onto the streets. The most conspicuous item was shelf paper. Large rolls of plastic in all colors and designs sat in huge rolls on the sidewalk. A man with a pair of scissors stood by the rolls and took people’s orders. Plastic containers in all shapes and sizes were another big seller. And as Shabbat Hagadol passed and kitchens were kashered, the smells of brisket and chicken soup wafted into the streets. Families all went out to dinner, grabbing pizza and falafel as if it were the last bit of dough they would ever eat.

We too did our part, dividing and conquering till the house was gleaming. Scrubbing floors, wiping windows, boiling water to kasher the counters, cleaning the fridge and ovens and stove top, taking things apart till the point where we didn’t think we could reassemble them. And when we were too exhausted to move, we still did not stop. Now it was time to cook for the Yom Tov in our ‘brand-new’ kitchen. We also had guests arriving and who would be helping in the cooking and festivities. They arrived the day before Pesach, arriving with matzoh, grape juice, more veggies and fish. The momentum was building in this sleepy town. But we still had to reserve our energy – we had to be up erev pesach at 5 am to greet the sun.

Purim has come and gone.

Purim has come and gone. It budded just after Tu B’Shvat in February with the appearance of costumes and candy, then sent out tendrils that quickly gathered momentum, smothering everything in site.

Candy baskets spilled from stores out onto the streets, children started celebrating in school, all day, every day. And Purim was still one week away. Kids had days when they became the principals and teachers, meting out creative punishments to the students. The schools held fairs, music blasting onto the streets. They held carnivals and made haunted houses. They went on field trips and baked hamentaschen. They had fun and, yet again, they did not learn.

Finally, the day before Purim, all kids from kita aleph to yud bet (grades 1-12) came to school in costume with one special mishloach manot to give to a class mate. I happened to be out walking my dog that morning and I saw it all; the kindergarten Spidermen and Batmen, their capes flying through the air; the little princesses and ladybugs; the primary school pirates and sailors; and then the high school pornographic display. I am still shocked by what I saw parading along the streets: spiked spray painted hair; shirtless boys covered in black body paint, girls with skirts hiked high and shirts pulled down low. One girl was wearing a costume of breasts with one complete plastic breast hanging out for display. She was dropped off by a parent driving an SUV and then shamelessly walked into the school. A teacher who was waiting outside laughed along with the girl.

But let me go back a few days to the Purim Parade. The Friday before Purim, many cities in Israel host a huge parade. School kids practice for this for months. They rehearse dances, music and make costumes and floats - and no, they are not in class learning. In Ra'anana, each school is represented in the parade, as well as bands and music schools. Flags are draped everywhere. The main street is then closed off to traffic, loudspeakers are placed above, and police stand on every corner.

The first year I was here, I was very excited and watched with enthusiasm. Wow. A parade for Purim. Not the Santa Claus Parade but a real parade celebrating a Jewish Holiday. I was enthralled. The second year, I saw it a bit differently. I watched the spectators from a café. I saw young girls dressed as provocative angels (what an oxymoron), their short fluffy skirts bopping in tandem with their fluffy halos. There were girls dressed up as nurses, once again in short, short skirts and high heels. I saw how they were walking and acting and I knew they were not out on the street to celebrate Purim; instead, they were out feasting their hormones. And then I looked at the floats. Not one float had any connection with Purim. There was no Esther, no Mordechai, not even a hamentaschen. It was a celebration of talent.

I also noticed that my kids’ Hareidi-style school was not in the parade. By the third Purim here, I knew what to expect. And so did the school. The school planned a field trip outside the city. The busses whisked the kids away before the parade began and they returned only to see the street cleaners sweeping up the tinsel. As for me, I stayed far from the madding crowd.

The irony here is that the scene on the street is perhaps akin to the party that Achasverosh held in Shushan. In the Purim story, Jews were not supposed to be celebrating in such a way, but they wanted to And so they went. And they ate be a part of it and wanted to be like everyone else.and drank, forgetting who they really are.

And then I began to wonder how many Jews at these parades really remember what they are celebrating – and whether they understand the significance of it today. Do they realize that we have a modern Haman living in what was then Persia, who again wants to destroy our nation? Do they know what saved the Jews then from impending destruction? Do they understand the modesty and dignity of Esther? Do they look for the hidden miracles in their lives and see the workings of G-d in the world? Do they really value their heritage? Or, do they prefer to be like every other Western nation?