How to Celebrate Passover During a War

Honoring Passover, Eid, and other holidays, whether through the lens of hope or grief, is especially vital to this moment in time.

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“Chag Pesach Sameach!” My grandparents called to me as I arrived at their house on the first night of Passover in 2024. Passover is the Jewish holiday that celebrates and commemorates the Jewish resilience and freedom from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago. “Chag Pesach Sameach” is a standard Passover greeting, translating to “happy or joyous Passover.” It’s celebrated with two nights of Seder. Though, on the second of these Seders when I greeted our half-Israeli host with this same greeting, I was told somberly that we weren’t saying “Chag Sameach” this year, as there were still at least a hundred Israelis being held hostage in Gaza—celebrating freedom while so many aren’t free felt impossible. I realized after both of these meaningful get-togethers that during a time of such pain, grief, and suffering among people we’re connected to and those we’re not, it’s crucial to maintain characteristics of both of these Seders— the joy of the first night and the grief of the second.

Indeed, the first night of Passover was filled with festive celebration, discussion, and joy as my diverse group of friends and family gathered around the table for Seder. The war in the Middle East and the global, divided response to it were at the forefront of our minds throughout the night, but we chose to address it through the lens of hope. The joyous songs were uplifted by a new, urgent sense of connection to one another. Many of us went home from the first night of Passover feeling closer to our Jewish community through a shared sense of unity—even among our non-Jewish guests. To me, celebrating Jewish liberation while so much of the world currently works against it felt like a strong and gentle act of resistance and resilience.

Moreover, the first Seder provided me with a sense of solidarity beyond the Jewish community. There sat my Muslim grandpa, Muslim-Iraqi step-grandma, atheist Jewish family members, as well as my Bengali, Jewish, and Christian best friends—led by my Jewish grandparents. Celebrating in an interfaith context together rather than focusing on the division that Hamas, the current Israeli government, and often the media, so demands of us felt deeply healing. I—along with many others—was filled with hope that peace and unity, just like what we had found at our Seder, was possible for the rest of the world as well.

Despite these emotions, I learned later that the night didn’t feel healing for everyone. After the dinner was over, my mom shared with me, “I loved the Seder, but my joy felt muted. I am looking forward to tomorrow’s Seder, where we will be able to speak more of the pain we are carrying inside.” While the first night held a celebratory tone for me, because of the differences in opinion and mindset present at the table, my mom—along with many others—felt unable to fully express their grief.

Accordingly, the second night’s Seder followed a slow rhythm, trading the energetic rituals that would define Passover any other year for prayers, songs, and wishes for the return of the hostages and a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Those at this Seder—despite holding less diverse political stances on the war—had more direct connections with family and friends directly impacted by the war in Israel. Friends of members of the Seder had been taken hostage, along with others to whom people at the Seder were distantly related. 

So, we left a chair at the table empty to honor the hostages who were unable to celebrate the holiday with their families. My grandpa sang a beautiful Hebrew prayer, longing for the return of the hostages. I rarely close my eyes during prayers, but I did during this one. 

This Seder was undoubtedly filled with more sadness and solemnity than the previous night. While we had connected through song and banter before, here we connected through sharing our undeniable grief.

I considered these two Seders and how deeply opposite they had been. I spent too much time contemplating which one was the “right” Seder for our current state of the world or which Seder was needed for peace and the Jewish community. I finally realized that both are necessary—during this year’s Passover, coming together in commemoration of the past with simultaneous hope for a better future was necessary but only with mindful intent. By maintaining a sense of community and observing rituals while introducing new ones, we can find the necessary balance.

As I reflected on conversations I had with Muslim friends during Eid, I recalled that the struggle to find this balance was not unique to the Jewish community during Passover. Just weeks ago, many Muslim families underwent a similar struggle when navigating Eid al-Fitr celebrations. Many considered the strife of their coreligionists in Gaza as they navigated balancing celebration with honoring those who didn’t have the luxury to celebrate. Just as this year’s Passover felt overshadowed and challenging to celebrate for my family with Israeli hostages living in terrifying bondage, Eid similarly felt gloomy and difficult to celebrate for Muslims internationally with so much Palestinian strife occurring. After reading in the news about the many different experiences with this year’s Eid, I found that many Muslim families across the globe also celebrated Eid with old traditions and introduced new ones that honored the suffering of Palestinians.

In Israel and Palestine, Israelis and Palestinians alike—despite struggling with grief during the holidays to a much deeper extent than most of the international Muslim and Jewish communities—have found ways of honoring Passover and Eid. 

Most Israelis know someone Hamas has killed, kidnapped, or raped, making celebrating Passover— a liberation holiday—a challenging task. Many Palestinians face limited access to food and know loved ones that have been killed in the war, making Eid—a celebration holiday— a challenging task as well. This has made celebrating joy and freedom on Passover and Eid extremely difficult. However, that doesn’t mean that Israeli and Palestinian families have disregarded these holidays as a whole. On the contrary, Israeli and Palestinian families have discovered the fine line between celebrating and honoring a holiday, and found that the latter is not only possible but also crucial during such painful times.

One example of this is Alon Gat, an Israeli who barely fled a Hamas fighter’s grasp with his three-year-old daughter. His sister, mother, and wife were shot, kidnapped, and abducted by Hamas on October 7th, and his mother has yet to be returned home. In an interview with PBS NewsHour, Gat expressed, “It’s impossible to celebrate a freedom holiday […] Instead of being with family this year, [I’m] going to spend a few days in the desert. There will be no closure until all of the hostages are back, including the remains of those who were killed.” For Gat’s family, there will be absolutely no “Chag Sameach” or celebration on Passover. Nonetheless, they still honored the values, history, hope, and perseverance of the holiday—not to disregard their suffering family but to honor and pray for their safety and return.

Likewise, in Gaza, many Palestinians have traded Eid al-Fitr celebrations for honoring those killed by the Israel Defense Forces. Many families spent their Eid at the graves of their loved ones. Photographs in The Washington Post portray four young siblings standing around the grave of a family member during Eid rather than festively celebrating the holiday. Like many Israelis, many Palestinians practiced honoring instead of celebrating the holidays this year.

Observing Passover this year may have been extremely difficult, different, and painful in comparison to any year before. Saying “Chag Sameach” may now be too fraught, and incorporating celebration and joy into holidays may be out of the question for some families. Nevertheless, honoring Passover, Eid, and other holidays, whether through the lens of hope or grief, for those of us who can is especially vital to this moment in time. Likewise, while it may seem difficult with the current world events, honoring other religious and cultural traditions holds more power than ever before. During a time of such division and loss, tradition, in whatever form possible, yields strength and contrasts pain. This year—during the war—the world needs Passovers, Eids, and other cultural holidays that cherish values of gratitude, perseverance, freedom, strength, unity, and togetherness more than ever before.