On the eve of Passover in Israel, tradition takes over — many, many colorful traditions.
As the biblical exodus story goes, the Israelites were in such a hurry to leave Egypt, they couldn’t wait for their bread to rise. So for the weeklong holiday, observant Jews get rid of bread, leavened foods and yeast products — in Hebrew, it’s called hametz.
Before the holiday begins Monday evening, devout Jews in Jerusalem dunk their dishes and silverware in large vats of scalding water set up on the street, to clean them of the hametz they touched year-round. They also burn any remaining bread and hametz in mini bonfires, sending smoke wafting throughout the city.
Passover’s most ubiquitous icon is matzah — the flat wafer that Jews eat on the holiday to symbolize the ancient Israelites’ unleavened bread. Matzah is also traditionally called the bread of the poor, reminding Jews of their ancestors’ suffering.
Stores in Israel, just like in the US, are stocked with boxes of mass-produced, square-shaped matzahs. But in ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, dozens of underground matzah factories pop up in empty warehouses and basements, so Hasidic communities can prepare matzahs according to the traditional specifications of their rabbinic leaders.
Many of these makeshift matzah factories operate without licenses and proper supervision of state health officials. Some factory workers have lost fingers and had hands crushed in the machinery. One factory I stumbled upon kicked me out, threatening to break my camera. In other factories I visited, people more politely declined my request to photograph their operation.
But in the basement of Israel’s largest synagogue, which had been transformed into a frenetic matzah factory, a supervising rabbi gave a shrug when I took out my camera.
For me, it was a rare glimpse inside the insular world of the Belz Hasidim, a devout community that originated in western Ukraine. Its head rabbi escaped the Nazis during World War II and rebuilt his community in Jerusalem.
Their matzah is made by human assembly line. About a dozen men in shiny black robes and fur streimel hats — their traditional holiday attire — lined up on each side of a long steel table. Men on one end were given a mound of freshly prepared dough. They rolled the dough flat, then passed it to the next men, who flattened it a little more.
By the time the dough reached the end of the assembly line, it was large, round and flat. Two men used rollers to punch small holes into the dough. Then a man draped the doughy matzahs on a long pole, and stuck them into a fiery oven. A few minutes later, out came the large baked matzahs, which were then stacked in pizza boxes, in piles of three, for community members to take home for the Passover seder meal.
These are called matzot mitzvah, premium matzahs made hours before the seder meal, to mark the time when the ancient Israelites ritually slaughtered lambs. Three of these special matzahs go for the hefty price of nearly $40.
“Schnell!” yelled the supervising rabbi, Yiddish for “quick.” According to tradition, matzah must be prepared for no longer than 18 minutes — before the yeast begins to rise and the matzah is deemed un-kosher for the holiday.
At one point, a group of guys told me to stop photographing and leave. The community’s rabbinic leader was about to arrive to make his own matzah.
A few hundred boys and men rushed into the factory room, standing up on chairs to get a rare close-up glimpse of their beloved leader. With no announcement, the rebbe arrived, dressed in a sparkling white robe, surrounded by attendants in black robes. He is the nephew of the late rabbi who escaped the Holocaust and rebuilt his community in Jerusalem.
The hectic room went completely silent.