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Why is this year different from all others?




Last year, when we sang those words with my siblings in their Cape Town homes, my husband and I never imagined we’d be living in Israel today. We had no idea we’d be marking our first major festival as new olim in Ra’anana, Tel Aviv and yes, Jerusalem.

In the days leading up to our first Passover as Israeli citizens, we were wished “Chag Sameach” by several strangers – a bus driver, a supermarket cashier, a security guard and a coffee barista.

Signs appeared in the streets and over freeways, wishing everyone well for the chag, shops highlighted their matzah specials and restaurants advertised if they’d be open for the festival. It felt like the energy in the country was shifting from its normal “intense work” mode to “holiday” mode. Children were counting down the sleeps until the chag started and parents on WhatsApp groups were exchanging their traditional family charoset recipes.

There are several obvious differences between Pesach in Israel and the Diaspora. We were excited about having only one seder, instead of two. It would also be new to celebrate for seven days instead of eight. But the most surprising contrast was the fact that the country seemed to slow down for the week before the chag.

Schools closed for the holidays, ulpan courses stopped and many offices shut down as millions of people prepared to clean… and then clean some more, ahead of the “festival of freedom”. It added to the sense that we were part of a huge moment in the country, regardless of whether one was irreligious, traditional or observant.

Festivals have always been about family – had we been in South Africa again this month, we would have been celebrating with parents, siblings and many cousins. Those are memories we will always treasure. This year was set to be something completely different…

You can take the South African out of Africa, but they’ll always find each other anywhere in the world. Our first seder here was with other South Africans who had made aliyah last year. We reminisced about the respective traditions we’d all followed as children. Some experiences are clearly universal – children giggle during MaNishTanah and the race to find the afikomen sees cushions being upturned in lounges, no matter where you are in the world.

As soon as the sun sets after the first day of Pesach, people make the most of the quiet work time to explore the country, before the temperatures start soaring. We spent time with cousins, old friends and new friends in a range of beautiful places, including hiking in the Judean mountains, walking from Tel Aviv to Jaffa and enjoying a special weekend in and around Jerusalem.

The capital was packed over the Easter long weekend, with Christians and Jews marking two important festivals. One couldn’t help but smile when seeing a group of elderly “dati”-looking men with long beards giving directions to a convoy of visiting priests.

Hotels were full and scores of tour buses could be seen throughout the capital. The popular market – shuk – was abuzz with fruit and vegetable vendors hollering over each other, trying to catch their next customer’s attention.

Then, as the country seemed to reach a festive crescendo… a tragic reality call. News spread that a 21-year-old woman had been stabbed at the light train station near the Old City. The mood seemed to change, almost immediately. 

Later in the day, it emerged that Hannah Bladon – a British exchange student – had moments earlier given up her seat on the tram for a pregnant woman. Her family described the murder as “senseless and tragic”. A young, innocent life wasted.

So, like a bolt of lightning, we were reminded of the dangers people here have lived with, every day. These are the realities we are experiencing and understanding as olim, for the first time. The overriding response was best summed up by a local woman a few hours later on that day: “We mourn every person we lose as if it’s our own child, but those who want to harm us, must know our lives will go on…”

Hannah Bladon and her family are in our thoughts. 


Favourite question of the week: Nine-year old daughter during the seder: “If you are living in Israel, do you still have to say “Leshana Haba Be’Yerushalayim”? 

New phrase of the week – “Motek” – honey or sweetheart. 

Smile of the week: When your Irish friend arrives from London for her first visit to Israel. As she gets off the bus, the driver smiles: “Shabbat Shalom”. Without hesitating she responds, repeating the same phrase: “Shabbat Shalom”!


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