Israelis mark Passover, a celebration of freedom, in virtual isolation

By Rami Ayyub
·3-min read

By Rami Ayyub

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Jewish Passover holiday typically draws crowds of Israelis outside to burn heaps of leavened bread, commemorating the Biblical exodus from slavery in Egypt.

But on Wednesday, a coronavirus lockdown meant the streets of Jerusalem and other cities were nearly empty on the first day of the week-long holiday, when they would normally be dotted with fires and columns of smoke.

Israel this week imposed holiday restrictions to try to halt the spread of the disease.

Jews may only celebrate the traditional "seder" meal that kicks off the April 8-15 holiday season with immediate family. Travel between cities is banned until Friday.

A full curfew took effect on Wednesday, just before the seder begins, and will last until Thursday, prompting a dash for last-minute shopping, which saw long lines of Israelis wearing face masks outside grocery stores.

Police have thrown up roadblocks and will deploy drones and helicopters to enforce curbs on movement throughout the lockdown, a spokesman said.

But some areas found workarounds to keep festive traditions alive in a month that will also see Christians celebrate Easter and Muslims mark the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan.

The Jerusalem municipality on Wednesday collected leavened products from designated dumpsters outside peoples' homes and took them away to be burned in a large open area on the city's outskirts.

A rabbi accompanied by a firefighter tossed a long, fire-tipped stick onto a patch of flammable liquid leading to a pile of the leavened bread products, many still in plastic bags, engulfing the mound in smoke and flames.

LEAVENED BREAD

One Jerusalem man, Daniel Arusti, disposed of a paper bread box in one of the dumpsters outside his house, instead of gathering with his ultra-Orthodox community to burn it in public.

"Next year ... when there will hopefully be no (coronavirus) threat, we'll be able to come and redo public burning of chametz (leavened bread) together, as we should," Arusti said.

Throughout Passover, Jews abide by special dietary laws which include eating unleavened bread known as matzo. The tradition marks a Book of Exodus tale that the Jews did not have time to prepare leavened bread before leaving for the promised land.

But in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood of Mea Shearim, some Israelis flouted the restrictions and gathered in small groups or by themselves to burn leaven alongside the district's sandstone homes and concrete walls.

Some ultra-Orthodox have heeded rabbis who, distrusting the state, spurned Health Ministry restrictions.

Unable to gather in person, other Israelis plan to hold the seder with friends and extended family online by video conferencing platforms.

The holiday restrictions added to anti-virus measures that have seen Israelis largely confined to their homes, forcing many businesses to close and sending unemployment to 25%.

Israel has reported more than 9,400 cases and at least 71 deaths from COVID-19, according to Health Ministry data.

(Additional reporting by Suheir Sheikh; Editing by Alison Williams and Janet Lawrence)