Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, is one of the most important religious and cultural holidays in Israel. Celebrating the events described in Exodus of the Israelites’ miraculous liberation out of bondage, the ten plagues the Lord brought down on Egypt, and the journey to the promised land. That’s a lot for any holiday to cover and indeed the Passover is a weeklong event complete with numerous different rituals and traditions to observe.
But how do Israelis plan to celebrate that history while still in the grasp of a modern-day plague? COVID-19 disrupted last year’s Passover events, and sadly it is still a looming concern of this year’s upcoming celebrations. Here are some of the ways people in Israel are keeping the spirit of the holiday alive while staying safe.
Chametz and deep cleaning
A traditional part of Passover is cleansing the home of chametz. What are chametz? Very simply it is any food that contains wheat, barley, rye, and oats that has been mixed with water and allowed to "rise.” In other words, leaven bread. Jewish observers not only abstain from such food during Passover, but they also need to cleanse their house of them so they do not own or benefit from chametz during the holiday. Over the years, this has been folded into a kind of broader annual cleansing, but it is still a highly ritualized event. For example, as observers are supposed to have no contact with any chametz, some recommend cleaning the oven and sealing it up prior to Passover. It’s a very involved process.
Now in our time of social distancing and self-quarantining, there has never been a better time for Israeli observers to dig deep and give their home, vehicles, and other property a good cleaning. Many Israeli’s took extra time to rid their homes of chametz and give it a new sparkle for the season last year during the beginning days of the Coronavirus outbreak and looking online it seems many families are gearing up to do it again. This makes a lot of sense, if you’re going to be stuck at home it might as well be comfortable and look great!
One of the most important parts of Passover is the Seder. This is the traditional feast that marks the beginning of Passover. Normally, this is a joyously chaotic and crowded affair. Entire families gather and crowd around a shared table, swapping stories, picking at the spread and traditional four (!) glasses of wine, and making a show of who can recline and relax the most (seriously, one of the Seder traditions is to recline in your chair to demonstrate the comfort and freedom Israelis enjoy since escaping Egypt).
Sadly, in the current climate with COVID-19 looming over us, gathering that many people into a small room is just asking for trouble. Many people will be practicing smaller Seders with only their immediate household members or, unfortunately, nobody at all. While there is no denying that this will be a very different Seder from the traditional experience, many Israeli families are still doing what they can to honor the Seder and make it fun for the whole family!
Last year many families attempted "virtual Seders” to various degrees of success. Trying to wrangle more than a dozen relatives through a Zoom meeting screen to read through the Haggadah is no easy feat! Thankfully, after a year of dealing with COVID lots of people have plenty of experience with Zoom and there are no end of tutorial and tip articles out there with pointers on how to throw a fun, but not out of control, long distance Seder.
Remembering what is important
As Israeli families enter this second year in a row of cautious distancing and a disrupted Passover, many are concentrating on what is truly important – keeping each other safe. Yes, it has been an incredibly difficult year, and nobody expected to have to celebrate a second Passover under these conditions, it’s discouraging and difficult and disappointing. But at its core, the Passover is a celebration of the Israeli people’s perseverance in the face of adversity. We have dealt with the disruptions and dangers of COVID for an entire year now and with vaccines beginning wider distribution the end is finally in sight. While this might be an unusual Passover, the important thing is to make sure everybody makes it to see next year when they can gather in safety and gratitude.