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Some Jewish Canadians say this Passover comes with solemnity and complex emotions

HALIFAX — As Jewish Canadians prepared for the beginning of Passover Monday, some said this year's celebrations come with complex emotions and added solemnity amid violence in Gaza and a rise in antisemitic incidents in Canada.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and children burn leavened items in final preparation for the Passover holiday in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish town of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, April 22, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Oded Balilty

HALIFAX — As Jewish Canadians prepared for the beginning of Passover Monday, some said this year's celebrations come with complex emotions and added solemnity amid violence in Gaza and a rise in antisemitic incidents in Canada.

The Jewish holiday, which begins Monday at sundown and lasts eight days, commemorates the exodus of ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt, as recounted in the Bible.

For many, Passover is a time to reunite with family and recount the story of the exodus, read from a text called a Haggadah. This is often done during seder, a meal where unleavened matzo is eaten as a reminder of Israelites' hasty flight from Egypt without time to wait for bread dough to rise.

Eddie Paul, a librarian at the 110-year-old Jewish Public Library in Montreal, said he expects heightened emotions among many Jews during Passover this year related to the ongoing war in Gaza.

“There are a series of subcultures within Judaism, and Jews are obviously not a homogeneous group … and this is a very polarized time,” Paul said, adding that the current circumstances may result in a range of different Passover experiences.

“One of the features of Passover is that it allows for different narratives to be overlaid onto the traditional narrative,” he said, adding that over the past 75 years many variations of the Haggadah have been published, including ones for vegetarians, LGBTQ people and for interfaith seders.

The Hebrew word for Egypt means “narrow straits,” Paul noted, and as a metaphor, celebrating Passover is a way to emerge from that narrow place of entrenchment.

“What is said to have happened during the time of the exodus is way too far back in the reaches of people's memory. So people are going to grab onto the reality that’s relevant to them, and that's particularly important now, because polarization has really made people entrenched (in their perspectives). The whole idea of Passover is to listen, be receptive and emerge from that narrow place.”

Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said many families will be leaving empty seats at their seder tables with pictures of Israeli hostages kidnapped during the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas and its affiliates. Attackers killed about 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped 250 others.

Many Jews across the country will be marking the holiday in fear amid a rise in antisemitic incidents at synagogues and schools in Canada, he said. His advocacy organization works to combat antisemitism and strengthen ties between Israel and Canada.

"Jews are really hurting," he said in an interview Monday. "We're not just anxious, we're not just distressed with what's happening in the Middle East. We are hurting here because of the ugliness and toxic manifestations of antisemitism that have characterized our streets across the country for six months now."

Independent Jewish Voices Canada, an anti-Zionist organization that has been prominent in pro-Palestinian protests on Canadian streets since the war began, says the theme of Passover echoes the current need for liberation of non-Jews who have been under siege in Gaza.

Spokesperson Willa Holt said Passover reminds Jews of the persecution they have faced and that their resistance is strong. 

“We're thinking about Passover really as a message for all people to be freed from oppression. And that includes, especially, Palestinians,” Holt said Monday. 

The Hamas-run Health Ministry says the Palestinian death toll from the war has surpassed 30,000 people, with hundreds of thousands more going hungry. Holt said many Jews across Canada will reflect on the humanitarian crisis that is ongoing in Gaza as they mark Passover.

“A lot of families who are taking the time to commemorate this holiday are trying to do so in a justice-oriented way, rather than focusing on the exceptionalism of just Jewish people being free from oppression,” Holt said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2024.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press