The smell of smoke, half-off sales, keg parties and strange theories about leavened goods
[Jerusalem] Passover eve, for observant Jews, is the deadline of all deadlines, a day by which all surfaces, all cupboards, all shelves have to be scoured and cleansed of anything that even may allude to a leavened product.
Passover Eve, for many Jews, is the day in which dough becomes kryptonite.
In Jerusalem’s bustling central market, which, apart from the dark uniforms of elite police corps members standing vigilantly by some corners, their hands lightly resting on their weapons, appeared to be unaffected by the violence that has visited this city since October, 2015, an intriguing scent of something burning, maybe something baking, replaced the more common scents of grilled meat and sweet chocolate rugulach.
What was that aroma? It was Biur Chametz, [the destruction of leavened food products] an act described on the website of the Lubavitch movement, an ultra-Orthodox organization, as “Chametz’s Final Moments.”
Chametz, a word derived from the Hebrew root of the word “ferment,” is the term used for any leavened product, which is strictly prohibited during the seven days of Passover, a festival commemorating the Jews’ escape from Pharaoh’s Egypt, with nary enough time to bake up a burnt, too-crisp flatbread. [Editor’s note: 18 minutes after water touches grain fermentation sets in and for Passover purposes, the food item become “chametz.”]
“Chametz may be eaten until the fourth hour of the day,” Lubavitch counsels aspiring keepers of the flame. “After that, only foods that are kosher for Passover are eaten… Since even a minute amount of chametz is prohibited, we carefully rinse, brush, and floss our teeth, to ensure that we really have gotten rid of all the chametz within us.”
The souk (shuk, locally) is Ground Zero for Jerusalemite Passover shopping and general holiday preparation, with many of its stalls adorned with seasonal pink garlic, its dark green leaves woven into stands, the heads the size of baseballs.
Basher, the world-famous cheese emporium, has been kosher-for-Passover for a week, replacing the flaky, buttery brioches and crunchy baguettes with French-made “Matsot” [plural of matzah] imported with an eye on the thousands of French immigrants and visitors crowding the markets alleyways.
Every year, Basher mixes up a quarter of a ton of haroset, the sweet paste made of fruits and nuts that is served at the Passover dinner and represents, in its color and texture, the mortar used by the Israelites when enslaved in Egypt.
David Basher, one of the owners, who is named after his grandfather, who founded the establishment, told The Media Line that his version of haroset, which is composed of dates, walnuts, almonds “and a good amount of wine — actually, several crates of one of Israel’s best wines” — was almost gone. About ten small tubs of it could still be found behind the counter, where they were going for $15 for what appeared to be a few tablespoons. In Basher’s iteration, haroset resembled royal jelly more than grouting.
The entire market has been gripped by a frenzy. Some bakeries, for example, one standout, Duvdevan, had just set out mounds of coconut macaroons and chocolate mousse rectangles on what appeared to be sterilized, white display shelves. “We’ve been ready for the past hour,’ one worker told The Media Line, appearing still to be out of breath. On the other side of the spectrum, Marzipan, a favorite bakery of English-speaking Jerusalemites and American tourists was preparing simply to shut down for a week, the requirements of Passover preparations being too onerous to match.
Not everyone was thrilled by the flurry of activity. One woman at the counter of a health food stall with bags of potato and spelt flour, waiting to pay, asked the cashier with some irritation why the salesman had just informed her “it’s not ‘kosher for Passover,’ but you can get it anyway; also, it doesn’t require nipui,” the sifting demanded by religious law. “Why can’t I get my stuff without getting a religious talking-to?” she asked. The exhausted salesman replied only that most of his customers “are coming in here and making us crazy with all the specific demands.”
Alexander Turner, a man visiting from Oregon, told The Media Line he found “the religious atmosphere to be a bit stifling. “It’s surprising, actually,” he said, mentioning that when at home he attends synagogue services every Sabbath but found “the constant mentions of religious tasks even on radio talk shows oppressive.”
A bit like Christmastime, back home? “Maybe,” he allowed, smiling. “Something like that.”
Yanky Eischler, the owner of one of the market’s most popular coffee spots, Rpasters, was preparing a keg party for Thursday night, “outside, in the alley, to get rid of whatever is left of our beer.”
Beer, while not leavened, is not permitted during Passover under strict orthodox observance because it is the product of fermented grains. Fermented fruit is accepted, allowing for the consumption of wine during the holiday, most notably the four cups of wine drunk at the Passover Seder, the meal marking the first day of the holiday, which begins on Friday.
Wine was the subject of particular scrutiny by Naftali Magozi, a religious gentleman stocking up on provisions for his family, who pointed at a Passover classic—Papaouchado wine cookies—the lace-like tea biscuits Israelis of all stripes wait for year-round and wagged his finger in a clear “no.” The wine cookies are as mysterious as they are yearned-for in all weeks other than Passover. Made only of flour, sugar, wine (10%) oil and eggs, they boast the highest grade of kosher-for-Passover certification.
Yet, men like Magozi, unsure that wine, in fact, cannot under any circumstances leaven the wheat flour in the manner that water would, consider them untouchable. “I’d never take that home. I have no idea what they taste like. Never,” he said. “It’s only an Ashkenazi thing,” referring to Jews of European ancestry.