In the Diaspora, the religious boxes are checked, but the parties never take on their full or true form.
At one level, a seder table is a seder table.
The family bustle at the beginning, then the rounds of the table with the Passover haggadah telling (sort of) the story of the Exodus. Then the meal, then that last part, with one or two of us singing the closing songs while the others sit sprawled, half asleep.
It’s a timeless set of Passover images, coupled with the three matzahs, the four cups of wine, and the cry of “next year in Jerusalem!” who tells you it’s time to go home. It is a set of images spanning not only time, but also space in the Jewish world, from the American suburbs to apartment buildings in the Holy Land.
In fact, the basics of the Passover holiday are common to the United States and Israel. Throughout the world, Jews abstain from eating unleavened bread and related products and sit down for the Seder. All over the world, Jews remember the Exodus. These fundamentals of the holiday unite the Jewish world as Passover traditions have done since the dawn of our people. And yet, of course, there are key differences.
First, the differences in the practice of the holiday itself. In Israel, Passover lasts for seven days, with the first and last days being holidays in their own right (and days off). In the Diaspora, according to Jewish practice dating back more than two millennia, Passover lasts for eight days, the first two and ending two days as a holiday in its own right where observant Jews refrain from, among other things, using the ‘electricity.
In Israel, Passover practices have been heavily influenced by the Mizrahi traditions of Jews of Middle Eastern descent, so the dominant practice is to eat kitniyot (legumes) at Passover. On the other hand, especially in Ashkenazi-dominated parts of the diaspora (first and foremost the United States), kitniyot are not on the Passover menu.
Israel also has the post-Passover welcome feast of Mimouna. Originating in Morocco, Passover night ends is a blast in a party and family reunion with Moroccan pastries, music and clothing. The uniquely Moroccan Jewish holiday has become a central part of the Israeli calendar, and almost as much a part of the rhythm of the Passover season as the Passover holiday itself.
But, of course, the main differences between the Israeli and American Passover experiences lie not in religious practices, but in the festive mood.
In the United States, Passover is the holiday of a Jewish minority – respected by the non-Jewish majority who largely integrate it into American multicultural tradition, but for whom the night of the Passover seder is an ordinary evening. In Israel, the Passover experience is not just an intimate family dinner, but an event that spills over into the public sphere.
The Israeli Passover begins with the near-universal experience of the seder itself. In the hours before the seder, the roads of Israel fill with cars, as if it were the rush hour of a working day. The next day brings the calm of a Shabbat-like holiday, to be spent with family or friends, in synagogue or at recreation, depending on levels of religious observance.
Once night falls on this first day, the Israeli Passover enters its next phase: the “intermediate days”, with their explosion of events and festivals. A time when shops and restaurants open but schools remain closed, and even religious practitioners turn on their lights and ignition on their cars.
For five days – minus Shabbat, for religious practitioners – Israel is a land at stake. Beaches, museums, national parks and of course festivals, it’s all jam-packed. Jerusalem fills with foreign Jewish tourists. Here, the real differences between an Israeli Passover and a Diaspora Passover come to the fore. In the Diaspora, many Jews have to work and the children may be in school. Vacations can even feel like a bit of a chore, with the weight of dietary restrictions but without the compensation of leisure and fun.
The seventh day is again a holiday in its own right similar to Shabbat. And then, the night after: Mimouna, with her Moroccan finery and an appropriate way to return to the working week.
All Jewish holidays, not just Passover, come to life in Israel. In the Diaspora, the religious boxes are checked, but the parties never take on their full and true form, separated as they are from the public sphere. Diaspora Jews must invest extra effort in celebrating Jewish holidays, and many find this satisfying. Many also find fulfillment in life in a multicultural society and feel energized by sharing the traditions of others.
In Israel, these are sacrificed in the name of the liberation of Jewish tradition to achieve its full development. This too is gratifying, and for Israeli Jews it is an ultimate reward. In Jewish tradition, 3,295 years ago, Joshua and the Children of Israel celebrated their first Passover in the Promised Land.
Today, our generation has the privilege of celebrating this holiday which is the basis of Jewish tradition, just a few weeks before the 75th anniversary of the State of Israel.