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Are we having fun yet, Mummy

There's no doubt about it; we're having fun. Jerusalem style.

Unless you've been living in a cave for the past 3,500 years, you'll know that (a) Passover is a thanks-a-million to God for getting the Jews out of Egypt (you did see the film already, surely?) and that (b) the main preparation for the seven-or-eight day Feast involves clearing out every last little lump of leaven. Yeast. Hametz.

Simple. Chuck out the bread. Give any crumbs to dem dickyboids. Buy a box of matzos, the bricks-without-straw unleavened fibreboard substitute.

Right? Wrong!

Jews take this seriously. Not only are all yeast products ruthlessly pursued and expelled, but such a spring cleaning of dark corners you wouldn't believe. Christians who regard the giving up of cannabis for Lent as the very height of spirituality should come to Israel and marvel. Here both secular and religious Jews purge homes and workplaces of the symbol of evil.

It's an effort. Ask any frazzled Israeli housewife.

Better still, ask little old us, volunteer bondslaves in a Home for 140 old folks.

Can you imagine the drama (no, you can't, so we'll tell you in a moment; savlanut - which means patience) of ritually cleansing an institution's kosher milk and meat kitchens without interrupting the normal bedlam of preparing, serving and clearing away 3x140=420 meals a day and without purified items coming into contact with the unpurified.

Now, (let us say humbly) thus far into our year-long stay in Jerusalem, we're rather slick at diningroom duties. We scoot around with trolleys, deftly scoop up used cutlery and crockery, sorting as we go. Make bright-but-basic Hebrew small talk to the slower diners. Then drop (sometimes literally, but hey, that's life) all the used stuff to where sons and daughters of Ishmael are poised around an asthmatic dishwashing contraption. And back into the diningroom to transform the tables with crisp new cloths, and arrange cutlery, cups, plates and serviettes just so.

There's an art to it. Including not bowling over the old dears as they shuffle out on walkers. Finding caches of tucker that ancient folk like to conceal behind the curtains. (Yes, we'll be like that one day; we can hardly wait.)

All these skills and more scarcely prepared us for the prelude to the Passover.

Most buildings in Israel have tiled floors. So our Arab cleaners do sponja - slop a bit of water down, push it around with a rubber blade on a pole. But before Passover...

Honestly, without a word of exaggeration, as we laid up for the next meal, placed tissue-paper serviettes, neatly sited little bowls of salad, not only were the cleaners shifting tables and scrubbing their legs (no, no, no! The tables'.), but Sammi, our young kitchen-hand, was gleefully operating the fire hose. Indoors. Water-blasting the windows where residents (and the odd naughty NZ volunteer) had tossed bread to the doves. Power-hosing the venetian blinds. Pressure-spraying into every crook and nanny where nasty hametz could lurk. Even our local cockroaches gleamed like new.

A difficult time. We paddled about our duties amid showers and shouting. Until Eileen reached a patch of floor where olive oil had been deposited and performed a pirouette that Fonteyn would've been proud of. And retired to swallow Voltarin and other painkillers from her well-stocked medicine chest.

(Thanks for asking - Eileen writing this bit - I can sit down without wincing now. With care. Sometimes.)

While, in the kitchens, the hubbub (pandemonium is the wrong word at such a holy time, eh) was up by several decibels. Kippa-clad inspectors from the rabbinate peered and prodded. Which explained why the staff weren't happily smoking like chimneys as they prepared the food.

Okay, let's pretend this is a sermon. So what's the whizzbang application?


Could be. But it misses the main point.

Look, when Jews clear out leaven - and, as we jot notes for this article, they're making a bonfire in the park six floors below and burning the yeast with appropriate prayers - it's to remind them to take a hard look at their lives and decide what is good to keep and what isn't. That's the point.

Passover's a great time, a family holiday. And Christians understand the deeper significance of the need to kill the Lamb of God; and the outpoured blood being the only barricade between mankind and the Angel of Death.

But also... Alongside this is the story of a rag-tag tribe just a few generations from crafting idols for sale in the bazaar; even fewer generations from selling their own annoying brother to be a slave; and now the tribe has become a slave people themselves.

God, long before then, before the foundation of the world, had chosen them. Now came the herculean task of making them worthy to be called by His name, to live in His land. To be custodians of His oracles.

To be a light to the Gentiles.

It's a big job. From the first Passover until now stretches thirtyfive hundred years.

But rumours are going round that time is almost up and cosmic changes are cued to begin. In fact, since we wrote the previous paragraph, an Arab we work with gripped our arms and said: 'You know, Chairman Arafat is just a man. He cannot live for ever. But one is coming' (he pointed to the sky) 'who will reign here; he will be good; he will sort out this mess'.

Even so: come, Lord Jesus.

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