'It's a nightmare]' Linda Hirsch said this twice as she gazed at the Passover Kosher Chocolate Spread. 'Why do we have to go through this every year? It's worse than your Christmas. Imagine] You have to change every foodstuff in the kitchen, down to salt and pepper. And every dish. Clean the kitchen . . .'
At this point her daughter dragged her away towards more shelves, crying, 'We must get on] We must get on]'
The Jewish Passover, which begins on Monday evening, celebrates their long-ago flight from slavery in Egypt into freedom. This week in Golders Green there were wry jokes about the pain of preparation for celebration. 'Slavery in Egypt is one thing, but going shopping like this is quite another,' murmured one woman. 'It's a cruel and unusual punishment all right.'
And not only for the shoppers. Kosher King had set up a special Passover kosher store to meet the seasonal demand. 'We've had people shopping till four in the morning,' said the man supervising the flight of food from the supermarket shelves, named (after Moses) Moshe Davis. 'It's chaos. I've had 13 hours' sleep since Saturday last week. I don't know what time it is any more. We've had queues to the other end of the shop.'
He gestured round the shelves, on which were laden more than 4,000 different items specifically for Passover, stamped 'Court of the Chief Rabbi - Kosher for Passover'.
'We've everything,' he added. 'Fairy Liquid, teabags, even silver polish.'
So Passover is good for grocers? 'Definitely]' said Moshe.
Only unleavened bread can be eaten during Passover, in memory of the haste in which the children of Israel fled, carrying unbaked dough. Before the festival begins, each scrap of bread must be thrown away, every perishable household good, from foods to toothpaste and lipstick must be replaced with items certified free of leaven by the rabbinical supervisors. Tomorrow the last remaining crumbs will be ritually hunted through the house with candle and feather. On Monday morning they are ceremonially burnt.
And then there is the cleaning. Passover requires either a whole new set of cutlery and utensils (there is, understandably, a growing fashion for paper plates) or a ritual scalding of the old set to make sure they are thoroughly cleansed.
By the chill cabinet Sheldon Stone, a consultant at the Royal Free Hospital, was picking out packets of cooked turkey. He had, he said, recently married, so he had just spent two hours down at the mikvah, the ritual bath, having the wedding crockery consecrated. He was planning on spending Sunday cleaning his kitchen surfaces. 'It's symbolic,' he said. 'When all of Israel had to get out in a hurry, they made preparations. If you have a strong sense of history it means a lot. And it keeps me off the streets, I suppose.'
Outside, the street teemed with shoppers. The nearby Asian-owned supermarket, against which Kosher King has been conducting a lively price war, was hung with unlikely banners: 'Raj Passover Superstore - Nobody beats the Raj Passover Kosher Fine Food and Wine'. Inside, small children dived on to packs of chocolate lollipops shaped in the Star of David. The restaurants along Golders Green Road were all doing a busy trade. In Tasti Pizza a group of students and their twentysomething friends bent over their kosher pineapple and cheese pizzas. Everyone, they said, was eating out because of all the cleaning to be done back home.
Nadine Gorman, manager at the Curzon Plaza restaurant, was there with her fiance, Darren Stalick, a supervisor of kosher food for the London Beth-Din, the legal authority for orthodox Judaism, which was how their eyes had come to meet across a crowded kitchen. All the group had cleaned their own rooms to help their mums, they said, and now there was only the kitchen and the car left.
'You have to clean the baby's books, where she might have dropped ice cream between the pages,' said Nadine. 'And all your pockets. You find things you haven't seen in the whole year. And then you lose them again for the next.'
By now, they said, all the old tinned and packeted food from the kitchen had been stored in an out-of-the-way cupboard in the house, to be ritually sold to a non-Jew for the duration of the Passover. The food remains where it is, and the non-Jew does not actually hand over any money; after seven days he ceases to be the notional owner, and it is all put back on the shelves.
Ronnie Maximian, a jeweller from Hatton Garden, said: 'The leavened bread, you see, represents arrogance - it's all puffed up. Symbolically we're trying to remove all pride.'
'The only way to sum this up is chaos,' said Michael Taub, a student at the University of Westminster.
'We're completely mad as well,' said Andrew Harris, a monumental mason, helpfully.
'But,' they chorused, grinning, 'It's a whole lot of fun.'
On Monday night, they said, they would all sit down to a ritual meal of bitter herbs and unleavened bread, in memory of the slavery in Egypt and the sufferings of the Jewish people in the centuries afterwards. They would sing songs and drink wine in thanksgiving to God for delivering them. Children, wide-eyed at the candles and strange bread, would discover their history and their roots. Their exhausted mothers would finally relax. It was, they concluded, the best festival of the year.
It was now 9.30pm. In Kosher King, the queues were still 10 deep. A matzoh-momma wheeled an overspilling trolley: 'It's a madhouse in there]'
Joe and Jackie Ross from Southgate were waiting by the checkout with a trolley-load of french dressing and yoghurt. 'You can put on lots of weight at Passover if you're not careful,' said Joe, wistfully watching a layer cake pass in a stranger's trolley.
'We've got most things by now,' said Jackie, who was beginning to look a trifle pale. 'It is a bit hectic. I had to defrost my freezer for cleaning this morning, and when I came back the garage floor was flooded.
'We've been eating leftovers for days. But it's worth the hassle in the end.'
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