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Arab Israeli Relishes Goodwill Gesture

Times Staff Writer

For the coming week, Hussein Jaber, a genial and rotund Arab citizen of Israel, will reign over a vast and far-flung empire of forbidden foods.

He’ll be the king of pizza and pasta, the czar of cakes and cookies, the potentate of potato chips and pretzels -- all in keeping with his designated role as Israel’s “Pesach goy,” the Gentile who takes symbolic custody of the country’s leavened products during the Passover holiday, which begins tonight and lasts until sundown next Wednesday.

Nearly 31 months of ugly, grinding conflict between Israel and Palestinians has frayed ties between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis, putting strains even on long-standing friendly relationships. But Jaber, a Muslim hotel worker whose Hebrew is as fluent as his Arabic, says he considers this yearly ritual a way of showing his commitment to coexistence.

“I do it out of a sense of fraternity,” said Jaber, 38, who lives with his wife and three children in the predominantly Arab hillside village of Abu Ghosh, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. “It’s important for me to do what I do.”

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Under Jewish law, or Halakha, Jews are forbidden from having contact with yeast-based foods during Passover, the feast that marks the exodus of Jews from slavery in Egypt. Tradition says that they fled without waiting for their bread to rise, instead eating crackers baked in the desert sun -- which are commemorated by the Passover staple matzo.

To undertake his temporary responsibility for the country’s leavened foodstuffs, or hametz, Jaber took part Tuesday in a ceremony at the chief rabbinate presided over by Israel’s two chief rabbis -- one representing the Ashkenazim, or Jews of Germanic and Eastern European descent, and the other representing the Sephardim, or Jews with origins on the Iberian Peninsula -- together with the finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

As he has for the last eight years, Jaber made a symbolic down payment of 20,000 Israeli shekels, about $450, on the vast store of goods and agreed that the remaining payment would be made by the end of Passover.

“Since we agreed that the rest of the payment would be $150 million, I obviously don’t have it -- not this year, anyway!” said Jaber, looking pleased before the ceremony as he described his role. “So at the end of Passover, I come back and say, ‘Well, it seems I don’t have the money after all,’ and they say, ‘Well, so then the deal is off.’ ”

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Smaller local versions of this “sale” of leavened products take place in the days before Passover in towns and neighborhoods, in kibbutzim and in Jewish settlements. People seal up goods that are not kosher for Passover in cabinets and sign them over to their rabbi. The “sales” then go up the chain to the local religious council and finally to the chief rabbinate.

The Israeli army has its own version of a “Pesach goy” -- a Druze officer who formally accepts ownership for the week of the military’s enormous stock of leavened and not-kosher-for-Passover foods.

Merchants too must make a symbolic sale of goods that stay stored but inaccessible in their shops -- otherwise, observant Jews cannot buy leavened products there even after Passover has ended. Homemakers embark on a frenzy of pre-Passover cleaning to make sure that not a leavened crumb remains in their residences.

The list of forbidden products containing partially fermented grains is far more extensive than obvious items like bread and rolls. Ice cream is out; many brands contain small amounts of wheat extract. Beer and whisky, and many kinds of candy, are also banned.

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“It can really be a very, very tricky business,” said Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who spends hours at this time of year giving food-related advice to his flock.

Even products such as canned tuna and toothpaste can find their way into the hametz category by being stored with goods that are not kosher for Passover.

Jaber came to his unusual part-time vocation through his work at the hotel, which plays host to many religious gatherings and conventions of Jewish groups. Jaber, a food and beverage manager, struck up a friendly relationship with Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi, whose tenure ended Monday. When Lau later asked him to take on the task, Jaber agreed.

Jaber said Muslim brethren sometimes misinterpret the symbolic nature of his role and believe his small home is stuffed to the rafters with food during Passover. In a sign of growing hardship in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jaber has already received a flood of appeals for help.

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“I get telephone calls from people in the territories and in East Jerusalem, asking me to help them, to please give them some of my bread to eat,” he said. “I have to explain that I ‘own’ it but it’s not here with me in my house. They’re disappointed, but they understand when I tell them it’s something to do with God.”


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