Tel Aviv: A year ago, Giordana Grego’s parents spent the Passover at home in Israel, only thankful that they escaped the worst of the pandemic in Italy. This year, the whole family will gather to celebrate the Jewish festival of deliverance and liberation from the pandemic.
Israel has vaccinated more than half of its population of 9.3 million, and as coronavirus infections have declined, authorities have re-admitted restaurants, hotels, museums and theaters. Up to 20 people can now gather indoors.
This is a serious turnaround from last year, when Israel was in the first of three nationwide lock-up walls, with businesses closed, checkpoints erected on empty roads and people confined to their homes. Many could only see their elderly family members on video calls.
“For us in Israel, celebrating Freedom Day this year definitely has a very different meaning to what we experienced,” said Grego, who emigrated from Italy to Israel. “It’s amazing that we can celebrate together this year, even though everyone in Italy is still locked up.”
Passover is the Jewish holiday that celebrates the biblical Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt after a series of divine plagues. The week-long spring festival begins on Saturday night with the highly ritualized Cedar Dinner, when the Exodus story is retold. It’s a Thanksgiving-like atmosphere with family, friends, sociability and four cups of wine.
During the week, observant Jews remember eating bread and other leavened food to commemorate the hardships of fleeing Egypt. Instead, they eat unleavened matza.
Holiday preparations involve cleaning from spring to the extreme to remove even the tiniest crumbs of sourdough bread from homes and offices. Boilers of boiling water are placed on street corners to cook kitchenware, and many burn their disposable bread, known as chametz. Supermarkets close hallways with pickled goods, and wrap shelves in black plastic.
Most Israeli Jews – religious as well as secular – spend the Seder with extended families. The Passover of last year was a major break in the tradition.
Government-imposed restrictions forced the closure of synagogues and restricted movement and assembly to slow the spread of the virus. Some held the ritual meal with their nuclear family, others over video conferencing, while an unhappy couple kept the Cedar in solitude.
Another closure was instituted during the Jewish high holidays in September to prevent family reunions, and a third time came earlier this year with the emergence of more contagious variants of the virus.
By the third time, Israel has launched one of the most successful vaccination campaigns in the world after the government secured millions of doses of Pfizer and Moderna. Israel has now vaccinated more than 80% of its adult population.
It is too early to say that the coronavirus crisis in Israel is over, as new vaccine – resistant variants may emerge.
The vaccination campaign in the West Bank and Gaza occupied by Israel was slow to get off the ground, and Israel was criticized for no longer sharing its supplies. Israel has vaccinated more than 100,000 Palestinian workers working in Israel and Western settlements and sent several thousand doses to the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinians have imported more than 130,000 doses on their own, but it could take several months before shots are available to the vast majority of the nearly 5 million Palestinians in the territories. Experts say it could pose a risk to Israel’s public health efforts.
For now, however, Israelis enjoy the feeling of a post-pandemic reality, giving it to special patients.
“It is not only symbolic that it is the holiday of freedom, but it is also the holiday of the family,” said Rabbi David Stav, chief rabbi of the city of Shoham and head of the liberal Orthodox organization Tzohar.
‘This year unites families. People who were so lonely, especially older people, who were disconnected from their families, suddenly discovered the freedom and joy of being with them. ”