Israelis gather for Easter, celebrating virus absence

JERUSALEM (AP) – A year ago, Giordana Grego’s parents spent Easter at their home in Israel, alone but grateful to have escaped the worst of the pandemic in Italy. This year, the whole family will come together to commemorate the Jewish holiday of liberation and liberation from the pandemic.

Israel has vaccinated more than half of its population of 9.3 million and, as coronavirus infections have plummeted, authorities have allowed restaurants, hotels, museums and theaters to reopen. Now up to 20 people can gather inside.

It is a radical change from last year., when Israel was in the first of three closures nationwide, with businesses closed, checkpoints set up on empty roads and people confined to their homes. Many could only see their elderly relatives on video calls.

“For us in Israel, actually celebrating the holiday of freedom definitely has a completely different meaning this year after what we experienced,” said Grego, who immigrated to Israel from Italy. “It is amazing that this year we can celebrate together, also considering that in Italy, everyone is still locked up.”

Passover is the Jewish holiday that celebrates the liberation of Biblical Israelites from slavery in Egypt after a series of divine plagues. The week-long spring festival begins on Saturday night with the highly ritualized Seder meal, when the Exodus story is re-told. It’s a Thanksgiving atmosphere with family, friends, banquets, and four glasses of wine.

Throughout the week, practicing Jews abstain from bread and other leavened foods to commemorate the difficulties of the flight from Egypt. Instead, they eat unleavened matzo.

Holiday preparations involve extreme spring cleaning to remove even the smallest crumbs of leavened bread from homes and offices. Cauldrons of boiling water are placed on street corners to boil kitchen utensils, and many burn the bread they throw away, known as chametz. Supermarkets cordon off aisles with fermented produce and wrap shelves in black plastic.

Most Israeli Jews, both religious and secular, spend the Seder with extended family. Easter last year was a major break in tradition.

Government-imposed restrictions forced synagogues to close and limited movement and gathering to slow the spread of the virus. Some conducted the ritual meal with their nuclear family, others by videoconference, while an unfortunate few celebrated the Seder alone.

Another blockade was imposed during Jewish holidays in September, again preventing family gatherings, and a third occurred earlier this year with the emergence of more contagious variants of the virus.

By the third shutdown, Israel had 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 could emerge.

The vaccination campaign in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza has been slow to get off the ground, and Israel faces criticism for not sharing more of its supplies.. Israel has vaccinated more than 100,000 Palestinian workers working in settlements in Israel and the West Bank and has sent a couple thousand doses to the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinians have imported more than 130,000 doses on their own, but it could be several months before the vaccines are available to the vast majority of the nearly 5 million Palestinians in the territories. Experts say that could pose a risk to Israel’s own public health efforts..

Yet for now, Israelis are enjoying what feels like a post-pandemic reality, which gives Easter special meaning.

“It is not only symbolic that it is the feast of freedom, but it is also the feast of the family,” said Rabbi David Stav, chief rabbi of the city of Shoham and director of the liberal orthodox organization Tzohar.

“This year, families are coming together. People who were so lonely, especially the elderly, who were disconnected from their families, suddenly discover the freedom and joy of being with them ”.


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