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Israelis Celebrate First ‘Normal’ Jewish Holiday in a Year
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men prepare matzah, a traditional unleavened bread, for the Passover holiday at a bakery in Rehovot, Israel, March 14, 2021. (Gil Cohen Magen/Xinhua via Getty)

Israelis Celebrate First ‘Normal’ Jewish Holiday in a Year

Passover 2020 kicked off 11 months under lockdown

“This is the first time I am celebrating the holidays with my grandchildren in over a year,” says Tamar Levi, who is visiting Eilat for the weeklong Passover festival. “This is the first time I’ll hear my oldest grandson recite the Four Questions in person.

“I started visiting my grandchildren in February; I hadn’t seen them in 11 months. To be able to be together feels almost as big of a miracle as God taking us out of Egypt,” Levi told The Media Line.

With the majority of the population vaccinated against the coronavirus and the lowest positivity testing rate, 1.3%, in nine months, Israelis will attend the Seder on Saturday night in a markedly different way than they did last year.

Passover is one of the three biblically ordained pilgrimage festivals, along with Shavuot and Sukkot, which commemorate the Israelites leaving bondage in Egypt for the Promised Land, with a 40-year interlude spent wandering the desert in between. Passover is marked by eating unleavened food for seven days, while some in the Diaspora observe it for eight days.

While large gatherings were banned last year during Purim, Passover 2020 was the first holiday under lockdown where Israelis felt the full impact of stay-at-home orders.

Passover last year, characterized by the Zoom Seder, touched off a year of Jewish holidays that were drastically altered as a result of the novel coronavirus.

Spending all night going to different homes on Shavuot was not an option this year and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services were extremely limited, with many staying home. There was no dancing with the Torah scroll on Simhat Torah and schoolchildren did not partake in tree planting trips during Tu B’Shvat, a longstanding tradition for Israelis. This Purim, in late February, cities such as Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, which have large Orthodox populations, were under lockdown.

Thus, the pandemic has spurred many Israelis to value Passover even more.

“I’m very [appreciative] that there’s not a lockdown like last year, as I couldn’t celebrate with my family,” Bracha, a Modern Orthodox American-Israeli professional living in Jerusalem, told The Media Line. “Celebrating with family is very joyous and we maintain beautiful traditions from over the years, so all in all, it’s a beautiful happy and holy vibe. This sharply contrasts with last year, so I have a lot of gratitude for the way things will be this year.”

Hadassah Herzog, a Jerusalemite rebbetzin whose husband served congregations in Philadelphia and Minneapolis, is also thankful that this Passover is different.

“Last year I was alone, and it’s good to be with family this year and I’m looking forward to it,” she told The Media Line. “While last year was not ideal, I made the best of it. I love to learn and it was interesting doing the Seder by myself.”

Avinoam Dotan, who lives near the Dead Sea, says COVID-19 has given him a new perspective about slavery and freedom, major motifs of the holiday.

“I think now we really understand what it means to be not free and bound,” he told The Media Line. “Last year I celebrated by myself, but as I celebrate with relatives this year, I appreciate that we have an independent state of our own.”

However, not everyone is happy about returning to a more normal Passover.

“I kind of enjoyed being able to mute people on Zoom at times during last year’s Seder,” Michael, a Tel Aviv resident who works in high-tech, told The Media Line. “You can’t do that in person.”

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