July 19, 2024

Many Israelis were in a somber mood on Monday as they prepared to usher in Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom, saying they would mark the holiday rather than celebrate it, with more than 130 hostages remaining in Gaza.

The number of hostages believed to be alive is unclear, and with negotiations with Hamas captors at an impasse, there is little prospect of their imminent release.

The holiday is to start after sundown on Monday with the traditional Seder meal. By tradition, this is a joyful gathering of family and friends who follow a ritual order of blessings over symbolic foods as they retell the biblical story of the bondage and suffering of the ancient Israelites in Egypt and their exodus and liberation.

Israelis are still jittery after an exchange of fire with Iran this month, the first time Tehran had directly attacked Israel from Iranian territory. And the country continues to mourn the roughly 1,200 people the Israeli authorities say were killed in the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, which prompted six months of deadly fighting in Gaza so far. More than 250 Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza since the start of Israel’s ground invasion in late October, the military says. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war, according to Gaza health officials.

Daily tit-for-tat attacks over the northern border with Lebanon have turned a portion of Israel into a no-go zone. Tens of thousands of residents of northern and southern Israel remain in temporary accommodations, having been evacuated from their homes.

“We will mark the Seder night for the children,” said Irit Feingold, 35, a pedagogic instructor for preschoolers who was attending a rally for the hostages in Jerusalem on Saturday night, and was planning to spend Monday night with about 25 members of her extended family.

“We will talk about leadership, freedom and staying free, and everybody can share what they feel,” she said.

Many families like Ms. Feingold’s have been holding emotionally charged conversations about how to commemorate the holiday, with some saying they preferred not to conduct a Seder at all.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews shopping before Passover in the Mea She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem. Credit…Hannah McKay/Reuters

“Every festival is another milestone showing how we aren’t whole,” Ms. Feingold said, adding that it was imperative to resist sliding back into normalcy and routine. Her husband, a soldier in the reserves, is to return to Gaza after the holiday.

The organization representing most of the families of the hostages is urging families to place an empty chair at their table with a portrait of a hostage or a yellow ribbon. Traditionally, Jews leave an empty chair at the Seder for Elijah, the biblical prophet revered as the harbinger of hope and redemption.

“All of the symbolic things we do at the Seder will take on a much more profound and deep meaning this year,” said Rachel Goldberg-Polin, whose son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, a dual citizen of Israel and the United States, was taken captive into Gaza after his arm was blown off during an assault on a roadside bomb shelter. He had taken refuge there after fleeing the Tribe of Nova music festival.

Mentioning the salt water that is part of the Seder ritual to represent the tears of the Israelites while they were in bondage in Egypt, Ms. Goldberg-Polin told reporters she would be participating in a Seder with close friends and family, “and they have been very clear that if 15 minutes in we just can’t do it, and we need to cry, then we will cry.”

Hundreds of survivors from Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the border villages that was attacked on Oct. 7, were planning to hold a communal Seder in a Tel Aviv square that has become a focal point for the campaign to free the hostages.

Dusk falls during a pre-Passover ceremony in the West Bank near Jerusalem, on Sunday.Credit…Hannah McKay/Reuters

A quarter of the residents of another border village, Nir Oz, were either killed or kidnapped. Avner Goren, a son of founders of the communal village, wrote a poem comparing the Israeli people to a fruit salad — some sour, some sweet — to celebrate the country’s multicultural mix for a version of the Haggadah that Nir Oz produced in the late 1990s.

Mr. Goren was killed on Oct. 7. His wife, Maya Goren, was kidnapped and taken to Gaza and has been declared dead. Addressing the rally in Jerusalem on Saturday night, Rabbi Binyamin Lau said he intended to sit at the Seder table with his family, an empty chair with a picture of his friend Alex Dancyg, a Holocaust expert from Nir Oz who remains a hostage, and a fruit salad.

Rabbi Lau, himself the son of a Holocaust survivor, said, “We are a people that tells a story at any time, under any conditions.”

Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.

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