Passover in Israel
In its short life, Israel has absorbed Jews from all over the world, and each group brought with them a colorful variety of traditions and cuisines. On Passover, this amazing spectrum of practices illuminates the Seder table.
Around 85 percent of Jewish Israelis host or attend a Seder (it’s the most celebrated Jewish holiday in North America as well), and it's fair to say that no two houses will celebrate similarly. One major difference between Passover in Israel vs. the rest of the Jewish world is that Israelis have only one Seder, on the first night of Pesach. Most Jews elsewhere have two Seders, on the first two nights of the holiday. The reason is due to an overabundance of caution. In ancient times, the beginning of a new lunar month was determined by direct observation of the new moon by two legitimate witnesses. This observation had to be confirmed by the authorities in Jerusalem. In many distant Jewish communities, it was impossible to get reliable confirmation from Jerusalem, so they adopted the practice of observing an extra day of all pilgrimage holidays – Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot and Sh'mini Atzeret – just in case they had gotten the date wrong. Today, although we have reliable calendars, it is still the practice of Orthodox and Conservative Jews living outside of Israel to celebrate the second day of the holidays.
In Israel, the Seder is usually a large gathering that includes the extended family. It’s not uncommon to have thirty or more people around one table. In recent years, it has become popular to celebrate the Seder at hotels. Each family gets its own section in the main dining room, where they can lead their own Seder while enjoying the convenience of the hotel's services. Whether spending the Seder at a hotel or at relatives' homes, most Israelis begin Passover stuck in traffic, with holiday clothes hanging by the car window and a large basket of flowers on an empty set of knees.
Many Pesach traditions differ based on ethnic groups: The most prominent difference is between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. The Ashkenazim hail originally from Europe. Sephardic originally referred to those Jews expelled from Spain, but the term now refers to Jews originally from Arab and North African countries. Ashkenazi Jews abstain from eating any kind of beans, including rice, peanuts, soy and more. That leaves traditional Ashkenazi Jews eating a lot of potatoes over the week of Passover. Sephardic Jews, on the other hand, do eat rice and legumes during the festival.
Many Hasidic men wear a kittel or white robe to the Seder and add pillows to their seats, as if they are at a royal banquet. Hasidic Jews will not pour their own wine, but will have someone else pouring the wine for them, again, as a reflection of their royalty. They dance around the Seder table when the meal is over and then recite the Songs of Songs.
Most Yemenite Jews don’t set the symbolic foods on a Seder plate, but place them around the table in a decorative format. They don’t "steal" the afikoman, either, nor do they fill the wine cup for Elijah. Libyan Jews leave a small amount of rice leftovers on the Seder table, and then eat it the following day, as a symbol of blessing and opulence. Moroccan Jews lift the Seder plate and circle it around each family member’s head. Jews from Iran serve green onions at the Seder, which they use to “whip” one another when singing “Dayeinu.”
Moroccan Jews also celebrate a traditional North African Jewish celebration held the day after Passover. It marks the start of spring and the return to eating chametz, which is forbidden throughout the week of Passover. These celebrations take place at all of Israel's parks and are known for their great, sweet traditional dishes.
Thousands of young Israelis celebrate the first night of Pesach at communal Seders in exotic locations such as Nepal, India, and Katmandu. These Seders are held for the backpacking Israelis who travel around the world once they finish their army service. Most of these Seders are arranged by Chabad emissaries.