Surprised? Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reveals in their latest data that 88 percent of Israelis will take part in a Seder and 47 percent eat only kosher-for-Passover items during the holiday.

Pre-Passover fish shopping in the shuk

Meantime, as Passover approaches, latest figures from the National Insurance Institute’s 2011 poverty report indicate there are 1,774,800 Israelis living below the poverty line.

Families and the elderly form almost endless lines in every city around the food banks and soup kitchens that do their best to provide the basics necessary to celebrate the holiday.

Tourists have begun to arrive in droves. Most visible are the busloads of Christian pilgrims from Eastern Europe, Nigeria and an assortment of Asian countries looking to celebrate Easter. The Jews arrive in much smaller family groups, excited to be in Israel for one of the three pilgrimage festivals.

Meanwhile, here are 20 signs of Passover in Israel:

1. Some 200 IDF chaplains, including reservists, are pressed into service to commence the massive task of kashering the hundreds of kitchens, mess halls and eating corners used by soldiers all over the country.

2. IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz canceled planned leave of non-combat units during the holiday. For the first time in years, thousands of troops will be required to report to their bases for routine activity during Passover. Army spokesmen denied the decision was made in light of unusual security circumstances or as part of preparations for a major operation.

3. Street scenes in Israel change every day before Passover according to what’s halakhically necessary: Starting on Wednesday, young men wielding blow torches preside over huge vats of boiling water stationed every few blocks on the street and in the courtyard of every mikveh. The lines to dunk cutlery, kiddush cups and the like start to grow every day, and, at the last minute, blow torches are at the ready to cleanse every last gram of chametz from oven racks and stove tops lugged through the streets.

4. Prominent newspaper ads from the Energy Ministry feature dire warnings about the dangers inherent in cleaning gas burners. The text of the ads advises on the minutiae of taking apart the metal covers to get at that last bit of hametz.

5. No alarm clock needed here: The clanging garbage trucks do the trick as they roll through the neighborhood every morning during the two weeks before Passover to accommodate all the refuse from the furious cleaning going on in every household. Two days before the Seder there’s the annual pick-up of over-sized items and appliances. Dozens of antiquated CRT computer monitors and old toaster ovens stand forlorn next to the garbage bins on their way to the dump.

6. The day before Passover, families seek out empty lots to burn the remainder of the hametz gleaned from the previous night’s meticulous search. In vain, the Jerusalem municipality places ads announcing official hametz burning locations and issues strict orders banning burning in any other areas. Yeah, right!

7. Most flower shops stay open all night for the two days before Passover, working feverishly to complete the orders that will grace the nation’s Seder tables.

8. Observant Jews mark the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot by carrying out some of the laws of mourning. One of these is the prohibition against cutting hair. Good luck if you haven’t scheduled an appointment for a pre-Passover/Omer haircut. You can’t get in the door at most barber and beauty shops.

9. Mailboxes are full of Passover appeals from the myriad of organizations helping the poor celebrate the holiday. Newspapers are replete with articles about selfless Israelis who volunteer by the hundreds in the weeks before the holiday to collect, package and distribute Passover supplies to the needy.

10. In Jerusalem alone, more than 40 restaurants close a few days before Passover, clean out and revamp their menus only to open up with rabbinic supervision for the holiday and serve kosher-for-Passover meals to the hordes that are sick of cooking after the Seder.

11. Since most of the country is on vacation for the entire week of Passover, all kinds of entertainment and trips are on offer. Ads appear for everything from the annual Boombamela beach festival, kid’s activities at Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Science Museum, concerts in Hebron, explorations at the City of David, solidarity excursions to the Shomron and music festivals at the Dead Sea.

12. The Passover theme of freedom and exodus in Israel even extends to criminals. Israel Radio announced that 700 prisoners will get a furlough to spend the holiday with family.

13.  According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Israel’s fishmongers will sell 1,100 tons of carp, 80 tons St. Peters fish and 300 tons of mullet this Passover season to satisfy the tastes of gefilte- as well as Moroccan-style-chraime-fish eaters.

14. Israel’s chief rabbis sell the nation’s hametz to one Hussein Jabar, a Muslim Arab resident of Abu Ghosh. Estimated worth: $150 billion, secured by a down payment of NIS 100,000. Jabar took over the task some 15 years ago, after the previous buyer, also from Abu Ghosh, was fired when it was discovered his maternal grandmother was Jewish.

Culture shock? Arab merchants inside Jaffa Gate sell bread underneath the Jerusalem municipality’s sign wishing visitors a kosher Passover.

15. The popular Hebrew Bananagram game has invented a special Passover version with points for words in the Haggada.

16. At the Kotel, I watch as workers perform the twice-yearly ritual (pre-Passover and pre-Rosh Hashanah) of removing thousands of personal notes stuffed into the crevices, before burying them on the Mount of Olives.

17. Guess who’s buying matza? According to Iyad Sharbaji, the manager of Gadaban Supermarket at the entrance to the Galilee Arab town of Umm al Fahm, his matza is consumed entirely by local Arabs. Sharbaji told Haaretz that he generally stocks up on matza for Passover and has to replenish stock before the end of the holiday, due to keen demand by locals.

18. As the Passover week holiday draws to a close, have no fear that it’s a return to business as usual. We’re heading into the endless “meaningful day” season; Holocaust Remembrance Day, memorial Day, Independence Day and Jerusalem Day are all on the horizon. But first there’s the festive Maimouna day, a traditional holiday marked by North African Jews immediately following Passover (on Sunday April 15 this year) that’s turned into a festive national day of music, eating and political glad-handing.

19. In every ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, men and boys block the narrow streets with handtrucks piled high with sacks of carrots, potatoes, oranges and cartons of eggs — all courtesy of the Kimcha D’Pischa funds that funnel donations from abroad to the haredi communities, specifically for Passover food.

At the entrance to many large supermarkets, clean-cut teens hand out flyers listing suggested items generous shoppers can purchase to be placed in bins on the way out of the store for distribution to needy families.

20. A sign of the economic times — many supermarkets entice shoppers with a promise to allow us to settle up the bill in 10 equal monthly payments on the credit card. Yes, many of us will still be paying for the Seder come Sukkot!

[All photos © Judy Lash Balint. All rights reserved]