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The Passover seder is one of the oldest rituals in human history. And when we ask the traditional question, “How is this night different from all other nights,” Jews everywhere will respond with the sobering answer, that this Pesach is, indeed, very different.
At the time of this writing, 61 Israelis have died from the coronavirus and more than 9,000 cases have been confirmed. One hundred and fifty-three people are in critical condition, with 113 on ventilators. There are 181 patients in moderate condition and 7,930 are experiencing mild symptoms. Thus far, 683 Israelis have recovered and have been released home, according to information from the Israeli Health Ministry.
“Israel’s situation is good from the perspective of the spread of the coronavirus,” says Itamar Grotto, deputy director of the Health Ministry. “There isn’t a significant rise in the number of severe cases. Our mortality rate is among the lowest in the world.”
Officials attribute this to the measures Israel has taken, especially the rules surrounding social distancing and stay at home orders. With the exception of some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, most Israelis have obeyed these rules..
But how will they behave on Passover? Somewhat like Thanksgiving in the U,S., Passover is the holiday that almost everyone observes. According to data from Israeli’s Central Bureau of Statistics, fully 82 percent of Israeli Jews who self-identify as secular still attend a Passover seder, mostly with extended family, often in very large gatherings.
In the weeks before Passover, stores stock up on bleach, window sprays and other assorted cleaning materials, and the sound of collective dusting and scrubbing wafts through the air; some call it getting rid of the hametz; some call it spring cleaning, but everyone appears to do it. Every gift store holds sales for hostess gifts and advertisements and advice columns provide suggestions about what to bring to the seder host. Sales of flowers and house plants increase exponentially, and everybody buys all sorts of kosher-for-Pesach junk food that they wouldn’t eat at any other time of the year.
But not this year. Israelis have already been under a semi-lockdown for weeks, and, since we are not allowed to be with anyone but those who have been sharing our household for at least two weeks, seders this year are going to be very small affairs..
On most seder nights (in Israel we only have one) the roads are jammed, and everyone seems to be traveling to everyone else’s home. But this seder must be different, and Wednesday night will be a make-it-or-break-it event, officials warn us. If we all go out and visit each other, if we give in to the temptation to travel and meet, then the curve of COVID-19 infection and illness, which Israel has managed to keep fairly steady, will spike, and our situation may look more like that of other countries.
That’s why officials aren’t taking any chances. Since Tuesday at 3 pm (Israeli time) all intercity movement has been completely forbidden, and that ban will continue until at least Saturday night. From Wednesday at 3 pm until 7 am on Thursday, Israelis will not be allowed to go further than 100 meters (330 feet) from their homes for any reason, and the police have increased patrols to make sure that they don’t.
If we behave, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised us in his most recent press conference, the lockdown will be lifted, although it’s not clear when.
In the past, volunteer groups, synagogues, welfare organizations and other agencies have tried to ensure that no one is alone on seder night. But this year, many will be. The army has been deployed this year to provide food packages to the needy, but we know that many will still be hungry, whether for food or company.
At the end of the seder we traditionally recite, “next year in Jerusalem.” At times in history, it was a concrete yearning; more often, it is a metaphor for a better world. Here in the real Jerusalem, as everywhere else, we can only hope that next year will be happier and healthier.