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Letter from Jerusalem: Celebrating Pesach this year in Jerusalem

Baking matzah in Jerusalem. Photo by Marc Israel Sellem

MARCH 29, 2018 – “Next Year in Jerusalem.” That’s what we used to sing back in Maine when I was a kid on those rare times we made it to the end of the Passover Seder.

Usually, there was a half-hearted or no-hearted attempt to carry on with the Haggadah after the festive meal, but more often than not, we only got to out-of-tune renditions of “Chad Gadya” or “Echad Mi Yodea” before calling it a night.

Even when we managed to finish the Seder, “Next Year in Jerusalem” was sort of a throwaway line.  What does it even mean? After all, back when I was leading the “Four Questions” a few decades ago, there was nothing to stop any Jews in America from getting on a plane and celebrating their next Seder in Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv … or Dimona. So, proclaiming “Next Year in Jerusalem” as if it were some unattainable aspiration that we could only yearn for … well, just pass the charoset, please.

That eternal Jewish longing to return to Zion, however, was certainly present among the many factors that led me to launch my ‘This year in Jerusalem’ phase over 30 years ago. But more important, I must confess, was the love of my life’s insistence on living in Israel.

That decision led to many adjustments, including how we celebrate holidays, because Passover in Israel is a totally different kettle of gefilte fish. The supermarkets begin clearing out huge swathes of shelving weeks before the holiday, stocking them with kosher for Passover products. And woe to anyone who wants to buy some good old-fashioned corn flakes a few days before Pesach: the no-chametz decree has been enforced with extreme prejudice.

Our first few years in Israel, we loved the vibe around Passover in Jerusalem. Matzah everywhere, fast food places serving falafel plates with salad or really horrible matzah pizza. There was no bread to be found.

Then we ventured out of Jerusalem.

On a Chol HaMoed outing during the middle four days of the festival (the country basically closes down and goes on hikes), we stopped at a roadside restaurant near Netanya. We were amazed that the baskets of pita the waitress was bringing to the tables seemed so authentic, it was hard to believe that it was made from matzah flour. Turns out that’s because it wasn’t – it was regular pita. Our naiveté notwithstanding, outside of the Holy City it was business as usual for most of Am Yisrael.These days, even in Jerusalem, it’s not too difficult to find regular bread, especially the fresh and piping hot bagele with which vendors in East Jerusalem entice their Jewish brethren.

Of course, on Seder night, it’s traditional all the way. According to recent polls, an astounding 90 percent of Jewish Israelis take part in a Seder. That means millions of Israelis are on the road heading to their parents, grandparents, or children’s homes, dressed in their newly bought finest duds. It’s like a combination of Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one rollicking evening of family reunions, singing, drinking, eating, and arguing about politics.

For weeks before, all the TV and radio ads are geared to cleaning products, gifts to bring to Seder hosts, and – of course – food, food, food. Within families, negotiations are diplomatically conducted: Who’s making the kneidlach? Should we invite the in-laws? What should we get for the afikoman present? But when the big night arrives, the tables are immaculately set, the aromas are enticing, and the guests are greeted with hugs and sincere welcomes.

Regardless of the observance level of the host and their guests, most Seders in Israel last deep into the night. Even if they’re light on the Hagaddah from A-Z, they’re brimming with discussion (which in Israel can be mistaken for shouting), laughter, and family.

If you walk outside around midnight, long after the leftover brisket and tzimmes have been cleared, you’ll hear a cacophony emanating from apartments of multi-generational choruses bellowing out the time-honored Passover classics.

But the “Next Year in Jerusalem” conundrum remains. Our Haggadot, like many, contain the curious phrase, “Next Year in Rebuilt Jerusalem,” which is at least as confusing as the original declaration. What do we want rebuilt – the Third Temple, and all the resultant return of sacrifices and Torah law? I don’t think so.

Even with serious problems it faces concerning the poverty level of many residents, its political status, and the Jewish and Muslim divide, Jerusalem is doing just fine, thank you. But still, goaded by the hearty singalongs that preceded it, we vociferously join in on “Next Year in Rebuilt Jerusalem.”

Maybe it means becoming spiritually renewed and fulfilled – Jerusalem being our souls. Or if you want to take it more literally, it could mean that we’ll add that outside wood deck we’ve always wanted. Either way, we’re in Jerusalem, just like the Passover Hagaddah encourages. And any way you sing it, that’s pretty remarkable.

David Brinn is a journalist based in Jerusalem.

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