While we celebrate Easter in North America, Israel will also be celebrating by honouring the Passover. The Passover, of course, commemorates the events described in the book of Exodus when, through God, Moses liberated the Jews of Egypt and led them to the promised land.
But how do modern Israelis celebrate this holiday and what does it mean to them today?
A week of celebration
In Israel, the Passover lasts seven days, starting on the 15th day of the Hebrew month Nissan. In some communities in different parts of the world it is actually celebrated for eight days, but in Israel proper it is an even one week. While it is an incredibly important holiday, the nation doesn’t shut down for the entire duration. To the contrary, Israeli cities are extremely lively during the holiday!
While some businesses close and many people take time off, just as many people kick it into high gear for the week. For many it is a chance to unwind and celebrate, or to help people celebrate by entertaining them! In downtown Jerusalem for example, street buskers can be observed on any given street throughout the entire week, as well as semi-organized performances by musicians and artists throwing up defacto galleries to display what they have to offer. Many restaurants change their menu for the week, offering kosher treats and potato bread for the occasion.
While it might not be the first thing you think of when you reflect on the Passover, it is also the perfect time to hit the beach! Passover represents the start of spring in Israel as the country moves out of its rainy winter season but isn’t quite into the heat of the summer. Plenty of native Israelis use the holiday as a chance to get back to the beach, and if you happen to be visiting from a colder climate, an Israeli spring should feel just about perfect for soaking up the sun in comfort!
Passover might be a holiday with its origins in a sombre event, but it is still treated as a celebration in Israel! If you want to get a taste of what life is like in the Holy Land, Passover would be a good way to witness the multi-faceted nature of the Israeli experience.
The Seder feast
What if Christmas dinner was six hours long and included a mandatory four cups of wine? Well, it might look something like the Seder! The Seder is a feast traditionally held by families and close friends that involves a number of customary traditions and foods. There is wine, reading, a very specific menu, and of course singing. It’s an entire evening of celebration that kicks off the Passover week, held on the first night of Passover in Israel (and interestingly enough, the second night for those outside of the country).
What is on the menu? Well, a traditional Seder platter for starters. This dish could be comparable to a meat and cheese plate at a party, only with a very different flavour. The Seder platter includes lots of matzah (consumed in a ritual manner resembling how a slave would break and ration matzot while reciting a blessing), roasted shankbone (often from a lamb, and just as often for display instead of consumption), herbs, eggs, charoset, and karpas.
But that’s not all, many families also break out other favourite traditional dishes. Some common ones include chicken soup and gefilte fish, but families tend to make whatever they like the most. And of course, we can’t forget those four cups of wine. The intention behind the cups is symbolic, they represent four expressions of freedom that the slaves in Egypt maintained despite their bondage. These are their Hebrew names, their language, their own sense of morality, and their communal bonds and loyalty. The cups are drank in joy and celebration of these values.
A communal and personal experience
At its core, The Passover is a celebration of faith, endurance, and triumph against the unlikeliest of odds. It is fundamentally about the origin of Israel as a nation and the Jewish people’s willingness to bind together to support each other and persevere in the face of hardship.
It’s a lesson you can see reverberate in the history of the Jewish people. From struggling against the horrors of the Holocaust and coming out the other side to rebuild their own nation, to the formation of social structures like the kibbutz.
At the same time, many Israelis also experience the Passover on a deeply personal level. The Passover is the story of how much suffering and hardship the Jewish people had to overcome to find a home they could call their own. The modern Israeli stands on that ground today. It can be a humbling experience to place yourself in the context of that history and contemplate what is to come, especially for those who have made Aliyah. For this reason, the Passover is a celebration, but one that also encourages a reflective look at one’s self.
The Passover in modern Israel represents both a recognition of its history and the struggle of its people, but also a path forward. A reminder that no matter how bleak things may look, or how desperate a situation is, faith and endurance can see us through to a better tomorrow.