This is no secular spring clean. The weeks leading up to Passover — the freedom festival that celebrates the Exodus from Egypt — are the busiest of the Jewish household’s year. It’s a purge on breadcrumbs. Bread, and anything associated with it, is banished in favor of modest unleavened Matzah.
If you didn’t grow up with this don’t even try to understand it. It’s obsessional. It’s all-out war on the inner crevices of oven and fridge and any cupboard that so much as flirted with a cheese sandwich. Specific intelligence finds one retrieving a long-forgotten bagel from a teenage son’s rucksack and rummaging under the car seats for telltale wrappers of leavened loot. And added to this are self-imposed cleaning operations that, if now dismissed, won’t happen for another year.
There is the shopping and the endless lists. Down come the boxes of Passover dishes from the loft and – providing you have come through the abovementioned activities okay – it can almost feel like meeting up with old friends. The cooking begins…
The Seder service, which takes place in Jewish homes on the first night of Passover, revolves around the Exodus story and the meaning of freedom. It’s a story that has inspired many a freedom movement. And it’s probably no accident that throughout history a significant number of those wrestling the yoke of oppression were Jews.
At Seder we are encouraged to envisage that we personally made it out of Egypt. According to tradition, parents are obliged to narrate the story of the Exodus to their children. It’s a great narrative, replete with vivid plagues – think boils, locusts, hail – and miracles galore. And there’s a terrific cast of good guys and bad guys in a drama punctuated with one of the world’s first sound bites: Let My People Go!
The Seder meal proffers plenty of props for this story with foods such as bitter herbs and salt water to remind us of the tears. Even so, the evening focuses more on the freedom than the slavery. We drink four cups of wine for four expressions of freedom. And the air is optimistic as we chant Next Year in Jerusalem.
Children are encouraged to ask questions. There is much to arouse their curiosity. There is a festive meal and then there are the songs. It’s an evening for family, close friends and those to be brought closer.
It’s also a tradition in many homes to lay an extra place setting for someone not ‘free’ to attend. In the 1980s many laid a symbolic place for Natan Sharansky, then a Prisoner of Conscience and human rights activist in the Former Soviet Union. In more recent years we laid a place for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
This year something new: This year perhaps Jewish homes around the world should lay a place for a modern-day slave. We won’t however, be able to put a name or face to that person. It could be a Nigerian sold by his new-found ‘friend’ into domestic servitude in rural France. Or, a Polish 19-year-old who — with her parents’ encouragement — innocently answered an ad in the paper to sell ice cream in Paris for the summer; she is now one of the many sold into prostitution. Or it might be one of the hundreds of Vietnamese teenage boys trafficked into the UK, now working in a cannabis farm; if and when there is police raid — with no papers to show that he is a minor — he could very well be arrested as an illegal immigrant and imprisoned N.B. Organised crime can easily replace him within 24 hours. And let’s not forget the many thousands of vulnerable refugees who, over the last year, have somehow managed to survive against the odds and arrive on foreign shores with the hope of a better life.
After the drugs trade, trafficking in human beings is now gauged by the UN to be the second most lucrative form of organised crime worldwide. Associated crimes range from welfare fraud to snatching organs. These are hidden crimes so it’s difficult to get reliable data. Nevertheless, UNICEF and other agencies estimate that more than a million children have been trafficked worldwide.
As for the far-flung Pharaohs of organised crime – they are sitting pretty. For although there are now hard-won legal frameworks in place in Israel and many European countries to bring traffickers to justice the rate of convictions remains low.
This is because it is notoriously difficult to gather the evidence needed to prosecute: The perpetrators are elusive. The evidence is hidden. And even if health and social care workers come across victims, they are unlikely to have the training to identify those in such a predicament, or to be able to follow through effectively.
Freedom for those who are trafficked can usually only be secured after victims are identified by law enforcement. And as these people are stowed away from society this usually follows tireless, collaborative, meticulous, police work. It involves searching in places carefully concealed from the public eye.
The symbolism of modest matzah — the bread of affliction — this was always clear.
Ditto, bitter herbs and salt water.
This year, however, I better understand the purge on breadcrumbs and the freedom that can be won from searching.
 Friday night 30.3.2018
In memory of Prof Michael Weingarten z’l