It is Thursday night before Shabbat HaGadol, and the air in Jerusalem is charged. I decide that it is not enough to listen to the rabbis discussing the halachot of Pesach all day on Reshet Moreshet, my favorite frum radio station. I want to be a part of it all! Besides, the weather took a sudden turn today — when I got to the office (after a morning seminar on the history of the Haggadah), I removed several layers of clothing and turned on my fan. For several hours I have been trying to concentrate on work, but I keep hearing Wordsworth echoing in my ears: “All things that love the sun are out of doors.” I simply cannot bear to miss the final hour of daylight. And so I push aside the pile of contracts on my desk, empty the heavier books out of my backpack, and set off in the direction of the center of town, light on my feet and humming my favorite Chad Gadya melody.
My thoughts and wishes bend towards the shuk, where I intend to buy fruits and vegetables for Shabbat; but on the way I stop in a clothing store or two, hoping that I might find something colorful to wear for Pesach. I generally buy clothes only before the major holidays; this way, I feel like I am buying not just for myself, but lichvod ha-chag. I come to refer to my various items of clothing as “last year’s Pesach skirt” or “the lace shirt from Sukkot two years ago.” The Talmud teaches that a man is obligated to bring joy to the members of his household before Pesach. What brings joy to men? Wine. And what brings joy to women? Colorful clothing (at least in Bavel). I walk into a store where countless young mothers with elaborately-wrapped head coverings are balancing babies on their hips and hangars between their teeth. I pull a purple skirt off the rack, hold it against my waist, and bring it to the register. Clothes in Israel are very poorly made and very cheap, which is why I like to shop here. After a year or two of wear, I have a fresh set of curtains for my windows and a convenient excuse to buy something new.
By now it is after 8pm, but I am sure the shuk will be open late, as it always is on Thursday nights. This week the regular pre-Shabbat crowds are even more frenzied: the countdown to Pesach has begun. “Pesach magiya, Pesach magiya,” one vendor shouts as he hawks pots and pans and dishes and sink racks. One stand over, the vendor at my favorite bakery yells out, “Thirty pitas for ten shekel, thirty pitas for ten shekel, rabotai, don’t miss out!” I smile at the antiphonal fugue created by their overlapping cries: “Pesach is coming” and “Thirty pitas for ten shekel.” The words for “don’t miss out” are “אל תחמיצו,” which literally means, “Don’t become chametz!” I wonder if he realizes what he is saying.
Everyone in the shuk is buying paper goods and aluminum cake pans, and some shoppers have already begun stocking up on the ubiquitous “matzah ashira” coconut cookies, which make my stomach turn. (On Pesach my diet usually consists of fruits, raw vegetables, yogurt, ice cream, and chocolate bars; I won’t eat anything with matzah or anything that is made especially for Pesach. Matzah pancakes? Matzah pizza? I’ll wait a week for the real thing.) I buy one knife, one spoon, one fork, and one sponge, as is possible only in the shuk. I cannot help but notice the tremendous poverty around me: the stooping old woman in a kerchief who asks the string bean vendor to give her, for free, the shriveled cut-up beans that he is planning to discard anyway; the old man rattling his cup and asking passers-by for just one shekel; the tired mother who tries to bargain down the price of the eight peppers she is buying to cook for Shabbat. “I will surely open the floodgates of the sky for you and pour down blessings upon you” (Malachi 3:10), God promises in this week’s Haftarah – we are waiting with open arms.
For Shabbat I want to make a fruit salad, so I take note of all the new spring fruits: Thick-skinned oranges have replaced the clementines I carried around in my backpack all winter, and the apples are big and shiny again. There are passionfruit instead of pomegrantes, and the grapes are small and shriveled but the pomellos beam like giant yellow suns. One stand has a sign that reads “הגיעה הפיינק ליידי,” the pink lady has come! Who is the pink lady, I wonder? הנא אנוכי שולח לכם – who, exactly? Then I see the arrow pointing to a carton of bright pink apples and I figure it out.
Perhaps the best sign that Chag Ha-Aviv is upon us are the strawberries piled up in mounds so high that they block my view of the vendors standing behind them. I buy my strawberries from a man with stained red fingers who sells them for 5 shekel a kilo, which means about 40 strawberries for a dollar. “Do you eat strawberries yourself?” I ask him, and he looks down at the mountain of red fruit in front of him and grimaces. He uses a dustpan to shovel the strawberries into flimsy plastic containers – I buy two kilos, and never have trouble finishing them over the course of the week. I try to remember to come to the shuk with a big tupperware so I can transfer my strawberries immediately; they are the most fragile of fruits, and inevitably they get beaten-up on the bus when not suitably protected.
I know that I am finished shopping in the shuk when I feel like I’ve been doing Avodah b’pharech: my back is breaking, my shoulders are aching, and there is no room in my bag for even just one of those bright yellow lemons beckoning to me from across the alley. Dayenu. Exhausted, I trek down to the bus stop, adjust the canvas bags on both my shoulders, and breathe a sigh of relief as my bus pulls up and I get on. The driver winks at my bare shoulders but I insist on paying anyway, unwilling to accept his pass-over. I make my way down the aisle and observe that all the Haredi men are learning Arvei Psachim, anxiously guarding the empty seats next to them lest a woman like me sit down. No matter. The bus driver has the radio on loudly – a rabbi is expounding on the lengths to which a person should go when cleaning for Pesach. I take a seat, put down my bags, and look out the window at a city poised once again, as in each generation, to re-experience redemption.