(April 27, 2016 / JNS) By Eliana Rudee/JNS.org
The first time I came to Israel for Passover, I was sold. At Burger’s Bar, a popular burger restaurant in Israel, they served hamburgers with potato bread buns to accommodate those who were keeping Passover. It was glorious. As a person who does not react well to wheat, I was thrilled. I was probably one of the only ones who rejoiced over Passover easing my dietary woes, rather than the normal havoc that matzo creates in “normal” people’s stomachs.
But it wasn’t just the food that made Passover so easy for me to enjoy in Israel. Being in a Jewish state really took all the negatives out of Passover. I didn’t have to explain to my non-Jewish peers that, “No, I can’t split the fettuccine alfredo with you. Not even a small bite.” In addition, Israeli kids don’t need to worry that missing a day of school for Passover might harm their GPA, as Jewish holidays are days off for all. Most important, Passover in Israel is not simply an absence of negatives—there is the presence of many positives.
The buses say “Chag Sameach” and the ice cream is flavored charoset (the sweet Passover seder staple). The grocery stores block off their chametz (leavened products) and everyone is in the holiday spirit. I can imagine that Christians experience something like this on Easter or Christmas: the feeling of everyone around celebrating your holiday is something truly amazing, and something I never experienced in the U.S. It reminds me of why I made aliyah—namely, to be amongst my people.
And I really am amongst my people in Israel. The other day I realized that here in Israel, all of my friends are Jewish. I am still very close with my non-Jewish friends from back home, but to be honest, all of the friends I’ve made in Israel are Jewish. That’s not to say that they aren’t diverse. Quite the opposite, in fact: I’ve made friends who are from all around the world: Ashkenazi and Sephardi, black, brown, and white, right-wing and left-wing, secular and religious. I’ve met people of low and high socioeconomic status, people who have come to Israel despite great conditions back in their former countries, and those who had to flee to Israel. I actually feel surprised at how much Jews can “quench my thirst” for exploring diversity and difference.
This difference comes out on Passover. Jews coming from Spain and African countries eat kitniyot (legumes) on Passover, while those coming from European countries do not. But you might ask, “Why is this year different from all of the rest?” This year, Conservative Jews from Europe were told that they are allowed to eat kitniyot! I first learned of the news from my best friend from college, Leah, who decided to visit me for Passover all the way from the U.S. Although this isn’t a huge population in Israel, as there are far more Orthodox Jews than Conservative Jews, my Conservative friends and I were very excited to hear the news. When discussing this with others, we did get a few condescending responses from more observant Jews who didn’t approve of the change, which was disappointing. Either way, it means that for us, Bamba is now kosher for Passover, which, for Israelis, is a huge deal.
After my friend Leah arrived the night before Passover, we went to a hummus and tehina restaurant for dinner and consumed all the pita and beer in sight, soaking up every last ounce of chametz. The next morning we made shakshuka (eggs with spicy tomato sauce) and walked around, seeing all the haredi Jews in the neighborhood burning the rest of their bread. As the seder came around by nighttime, we walked to Baka, where our seder would be held at a friend’s house. My good friend and colleague, Lisa, invited us for her family seder. Having no family members in Israel myself, the whole invitation process was pretty heartwarming. After my planned seder fell through in the Old City, I posted on Facebook that we were looking for a seder. At least seven people offered to host us, and we ended up having to choose among some amazingly generous offers.
The seder at Lisa’s was amazing, and seemed pretty typical of an Israeli seder. I did my best to translate for my friend who didn’t speak Hebrew, although by the end of the meal (and four cups of wine), we were too stuffed to focus. The seder ended around 12:30 a.m. and we walked back home, with many people on the streets doing the same.
The next morning was Shabbat and Passover lunch, and another nice family living in the Old City hosted us. The hostess: a teacher, author, and journalist who worked alongside some very famous journalists in her PhD program. The host: an acclaimed worldwide lecturer and teacher of Jewish philosophy (not to mention his father is a famous dissident writer from Moscow). You can probably imagine that there wasn’t even one second of boredom during the meal.
Like many other Israelis who travel and hike over Passover, today I’m went on a long hike with friends that ended in a barbecue and wine tasting.
For the second holiday at the end of Passover, my friends and I are planning to go to Tel Aviv to soak up some more fun and sun before Passover is over. So far, my first Passover as an Israeli has been a great success, full of friends, food, and fun. To all those celebrating, Chag Pesach Sameach, happy Passover!
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied international relations and Jewish studies. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her column on JNS.org.