The Great Hametz Swap
“I am the Matzah Man,” announces the amiable Hussein Jaber, quite chuffed with the nickname. Although, perhaps more accurately, he should be known as the “Hametz Man.”
For it is Jaber, a 45-year-old Arab Muslim who, with the sweep of a ballpoint pen, signs a check at an official ceremony at Israel’s Ministry of Finance every Passover eve to become the owner of every last scrap of leavened bread, i.e. hametz, in the country. “I always like to help and saw this as a nice way to help the state of Israel,” he says. “I believe in co-existence. Our village is a model of cooperation with the state of Israel.”
Jaber is referring to Abu Ghosh, where his family has lived for generations. A favorite destination for Israelis looking for good hummus restaurants and garden nurseries, the 5,700-person village is nestled in the foothills of Jerusalem. Its population is mostly Muslim and has a long history of friendly ties with Jews that predates Israeli statehood.
Jaber has been in the hametz business for 12 years. Through a legally binding agreement, he buys up the country’s vast stores of leavened foodstuffs, including those belonging to supermarket chains, factories, food companies and even goods en route to Israel on cargo ships and airplanes. At a state ceremony on the eve of Passover every year, Jaber stands proudly surrounded by the finance minister, the two chief rabbis and television cameras who gather to watch him hand over a personal check for 20,000 shekels—about $5,000. The real estimate for the country’s hametz holdings is some $150 million.
According to halacha, Jews are forbidden from consuming, let alone owning, hametz over Passover. “Today, people often send us records of the hametz they or their company own by fax and email,” says Avi Blumenthal, an aide to Rabbi Yona Metzger, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi. To get around the hametz prohibition, a convenient arrangement has been concocted with the signing over of Jewish stocks of bread, cereals, cakes, pizza dough and the rest to Israel’s two chief rabbis, who in turn sell this vast carbohydrate kingdom to Jaber. “It’s all mine during Passover,” Jaber says with a laugh. “I’m the richest person in the whole country then.”
So it’s with a wink and a nod that Jaber follows a decades-long tradition and makes his down payment. Then, after Passover ends, he tells the rabbis that he does not have the rest of the $150 million. The deal is happily declared to be off, and the leavened riches officially return to their previous owners.
In the United States and elsewhere, similar arrangements take place on a smaller scale, with local Jews authorizing community rabbis to sell their hametz holdings to a non-Jew. Jaber’s predecessors for this Passover mitzvah have also been Israeli Arabs.
Jaber is no stranger to the world of food or Jewish tradition. For over 20 years he has worked at the Ramada Renaissance, a large Jerusalem hotel near the entrance of the city with a Glatt Kosher kitchen and a large Orthodox clientele. He has risen through the ranks from waiter to his current position of manager of food and beverages. “I know about all the holidays, the Torah and the Tanach, the various customs. Separate gender seating at weddings, washing hands before meals,” which are similar to traditional Muslim practice, he notes. “You could say I’ve become an expert,” says Jaber, who keeps a supply of glasses wrapped in tinfoil for the ceremonial shoe crushing by Jewish grooms at weddings.
Jaber, wearing a pale blue oxford shirt and charcoal slacks, makes his way among cooks and waiters dodging one another as the sound of dishes clatters in the sprawling kitchen of the hotel. He then ducks into his office, a small rectangular room located just off the kitchen. Inside, almost every inch of wall is covered with framed photographs of Jaber with Israeli and world elites, from prime ministers, presidents and cabinet members to chief rabbis and diplomats. “This is me with Ehud Barak,” he says during a detailed guided tour of his Where’s Waldo? walls of fame. “Here I am with the U.S. ambassador.”
He says he’s grown fond of the attention he receives as the master of the country’s hametz reserve during Passover. And he’s also not shy about his own love for the unleavened stuff. Like many of Israel’s Arabs, his family is among those who buy large quantities of matzah during the holiday. Some Israeli Arab women consider it a good diet food, and children like to spread it with thick globs of chocolate spread, an Israeli favorite.
Along with his annual “job” comes an occasional misunderstanding. There are those who think Jaber really has access to all the hametz he symbolically owns during Passover. “People ask me to send them things like cake and flour,” he says, shaking his head. “They think it’s all mine to give away.”