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JERUSALEM – Smoke wafted through the air in Jerusalem on Monday morning as Jews burned scraps of bread and added the final touches to weeks of meticulous preparations for Passover, the holiday in which the biblical story of the Exodus of the Jewish people from ancient Egypt is retold.
This year, the holiday comes amid uncertainty over the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, with the sides facing an end-of-April deadline to reach a preliminary deal or agree to an extension of negotiations.
Israel sealed off the West Bank, barring Palestinians from entering Israel, an annual Passover precaution against possible attacks. Israeli police also restricted access to a Jerusalem site holy to Jews and Muslims, trying to avoid friction by allowing only Muslim worshippers over age 50 to enter.
The weeklong Passover holiday, which begins at sundown Monday, commemorates the liberation of the ancient Israelites from centuries of slavery in Egypt, as described in the Old Testament. In Judaism, it is dubbed the festival of freedom.
Most of the country shuts down in the evening as families and friends gather for Seder, the ritual multi-course meal where the story of the exodus from Egypt is discussed in detail so that the tradition is preserved throughout the generations.
Leavened goods like bread and items made from yeast such as beer are banned during the holiday. In the weeks leading up to Passover, Jews clean their homes, scrubbing every nook and cranny to get rid of even the tiniest forbidden crumb that might lurk there.
Instead, Jews eat matzo — unleavened bread — to illustrate how the Israelites had no time to let their bread rise as they fled from bondage in the land of the Pharaohs. It is also traditionally viewed as the bread of the poor, and is symbolically consumed to remind Jews of their ancestors' hardships.
Speaking at a matzo factory in the Hassidic community of Kfar Chabad last week, Rabbi Menachem Glukovsky explained the deep meaning of the matzo for the Jewish people.
"It's called the food of faith, just like our forefathers, when they left Egypt into the desert with a lot of faith, they trusted God, they went with these matzos and we relive it every year," Glukovsky said.
A central theme of Passover is helping those otherwise unable to celebrate the holiday. An Arab Israeli politician says he helps isolated Jewish communities in Muslim countries, including war-torn Syria, by supplying them with holiday essentials.
Ayoub Kara, a Druse Arab from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, said kosher Passover wine and matzo is stripped of Israeli labels and delivered to Jewish communities in those countries through international aid organizations and volunteers.
Kara said that the roughly 120 Jews living in Damascus, Syria, are more vulnerable this year than before due to the civil war. He said he began coordinating the food transfers for Passover and other holidays five years ago as a deputy minister in the Israeli government. However, he said he works alone, not on behalf of the Israeli government.
Kara declined to name the other countries where food is delivered. Israel has no diplomatic relations with most Arab and Muslim countries over its stance with the Palestinians. Any Israeli contact with Jewish communities there can cause problems.
Aid groups in Israel also were busy giving food packages to the needy, with organizers reporting more people seeking their help this year due to the economic downturn and the increasing cost of living.
In last-minute preparations before sundown Monday morning, observant Jews symbolically tossed their last remaining scraps of bread into fires in the streets of some neighborhoods. And in some areas, home to Ultra-Orthodox Jews, large vats of boiling water were set up on the sidewalks to purify kitchenware to make them "kosher for Passover." Men in rubber gloves dipped people's pots and pans in the boiling water.
The holiday provided a brief break from U.S.-led efforts to salvage the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met late Sunday, while U.S. mediator Martin Indyk was expected to return from consultations in Washington by Tuesday.
The talks have been close to collapse for the past few weeks. Little progress has been made on issues of substance. Instead, the crisis was triggered by sharp disagreement over the terms of extending the negotiations, which would include a release of Palestinian prisoners.
Associated Press writer Daniel Estrin contributed to this report.