(JTA) — Jews around the world are about to begin a Passover that’s very different from any we’ve experienced before.
The holiday’s Seders are among the most-observed Jewish rituals, and many people have stories or traditions of joining large groups to retell the story of the ancient Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt over foods that are flavored with memory.
This year, with the coronavirus pandemic raging, many traditions have been broken. Most notably, public health and religious authorities alike are warning against communal Seders of any kind, but food shortages and difficulty obtaining groceries have also complicated how the holiday is being observed. Plus, with death and illness all around, the Passover story is taking a very different tenor.
Our team at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and 70 Faces Media has been covering these changes while experiencing them ourselves. Some of us are trying out the online Seders that many non-Orthodox Jews are holding for the first time. Others have made difficult decisions about balancing religious observance and public health ideals. And a few of us are choosing just to try again next year when gatherings — we hope — may be advisable again.
We’re sharing our stories here. We want to hear yours, too. Please use this short survey to tell us what you’re doing to mark Passover this year and how the pandemic has changed it. We’ll share your stories next week. Until then, chag sameach.
We can get through the seders, but the rest of the holiday looms
Among the many attractions of living near my husband’s parents when we moved last summer was the prospect of not having to get on an airplane to spend Passover together. Now we live 10 miles apart, but for the first time in years won’t be celebrating the holiday together in person.
There are upsides to the online Seder we’re planning for the first night. We’ll be able to celebrate not only with my in-laws, but my parents and brother in North Carolina; my husband’s sisters in San Francisco and Boston; and my brother-in-law’s parents and siblings in New York City. This group would never have come together in person.
My husband is a school rabbi and has gotten a crash course over the past few weeks in creating high-quality Jewish experiences by Zoom. So while I anticipate technical glitches and syncopated singing, I also expect that some of this year’s Seder additions — like a Magna-Tile pyramid build-off for the many preschoolers who’ll be attending — will add meaning and create new traditions.
I’m much more worried about the other seven days of Passover. I fear we’re putting so much energy into creating a positive Seder experience for our kids that we could be in for an emotional crash afterward, when the days continue to wear on with no special plans to set them apart. — Philissa Cramer, Chicago
We’re taking a pass on Passover
I know we’re supposed to make all kinds of special efforts to come together now especially, but the truth is we only do Seders to give the kids warm family memories of the kind that no Zoom conversation can create for a 3- and 4-year-old. There’s no way we’re venturing out to get products that are kosher for Passover. Or getting rid of the mountains of pasta and other chametz products we stocked up on because of the coronavirus crisis. On Seder night, we’ll discuss over a nice pasta dinner the nice fridge magnet with a painting of the parting of the Red Sea that the local Jewish community sent us and call it a day. — Cnaan Liphshiz, Amsterdam
I’m hunkered down with family. l hope I made the right choice.
After three weeks of intense social distancing in my Manhattan apartment, I made the decision to join family in the suburbs for the entirety of Passover. As an Orthodox Jew who strictly observes the holiday and its attendant stringencies, making my entire apartment kosher for Passover, procuring kosher for Passover food and spending five days alone and technology-free were not how I intended to spend my holiday. With this in mind, I took all the steps I possibly could in advance to keep myself and others physically safe from the virus while also taking care of my mental health. The decision to “shelter in a different place” was a fraught moral choice, and I hope I made the right one.
So much of Orthodox life has been upended recently: Synagogues that never closed have shuttered; so many in our community have been infected, and rabbis are helping congregants navigate complicated decisions of life and death; our yeshivas, schools and wedding halls have gone dark; friends are losing loved ones and scrambling to help one another in our tight-knit, generous communities while also staying healthy and sane.
It’s not going to be a boisterous Passover this year, and it’s going to be challenging “going it alone,” unable to hear inspiring words or catch up on the latest news at synagogue, and being unable to venture out on the intermediary days, which are usually a time for taking trips with family and friends. Unfortunately, I’m also sure we’ll emerge from each span without our cellphones to the news of more sick and dead loved ones.
But I’ve been inspired by the creativity and generosity of the Orthodox world: the shiurim via telephone, Facebook Live and Zoom; the scramble to feed those who are sick or unable to afford kosher food; the sensitive guidance from community leaders; the beautiful music and poetry that has come out of this; the calls for those who have been sick and recovered to donate potentially lifesaving blood components.
I hope the sacrifices we make this year will allow us to soon spend Shabbats and holidays with friends and extended family once again — and appreciate the fact we are able to even more. And maybe we’ll get to keep having shiurim on Zoom. – Laura E. Adkins, New Jersey
My soldier son and my doctor husband won’t make it to Seder
When we made aliyah 20 years ago, I made a pact with one of my sisters-in-law that we would always spend Seder night with them. My husband’s three sisters all live in the same community as we do — we were the last to arrive here — but the other two have in-laws in Israel and spend every other Seder night with them. This year, though we live just two blocks away from each other, our families will hold separate Seders. And for the first time I will not be spending Seder night with some of my children, and maybe not my husband.
My oldest son entered the Israeli army three weeks ago. Prior to his induction, he had expected that he would be released from his base in the south of the country, on the Egyptian border, for the Passover holiday. We even scheduled a dentist appointment for erev Pesach. But just two days before he became a proud member of the Givati Brigade combat unit he was told to pack for 30 days, and since arriving at his base he has been told to expect his time isolated with his fellow recruits to be even longer.
My married daughter and her husband will spend their second Passover as a young couple alone in their apartment in the central Israeli city of Lod. I have been receiving regular requests from her for all the family recipes, so I know we will be in her thoughts.
Meanwhile, my husband is the head of a coronavirus unit at a hospital in Tel Aviv and has been working nonstop since the crisis began. He is scheduled to work all night on Seder night, though his Arab-Israeli residents have offered to cover for him so that he can stay home with us at least until we get to the festive meal. Maybe they will sing “Chad Gadya” with him when he gets to the hospital. — Marcy Oster, Israel
We’re doing our best to prepare in a world that keeps changing
While we’ll be without extended family this Passover due to social distancing, we consider ourselves relatively fortunate: We have our four young children to enliven our Seder with their curiosity, enthusiasm and (hopefully) singing. By contrast, my parents and my wife’s parents will be alone, just two at their tables. We’re trying to coordinate a pre-holiday Zoom call for grandparents and grandchildren, but the scheduling is tricky given that we are in time zones seven hours apart.
We’ve been quarantined or social distancing for more than five weeks now, following an ill-timed vacation in Italy, but I still can’t believe we’ll be celebrating Passover without community. Passover traditionally is one of the three Jewish gathering festivals, when in the time of the Holy Temple Jews would congregate in Jerusalem for the holiday. In our times, synagogue serves that function. On Passover we emerge from our winter hibernation, meet old friends and linger outside after services all dressed in our fancy duds, blinking under the bright spring sunshine. This year on Passover morning, I’ll have to cajole my family members to change out of their pajamas and brush their teeth.
Living in Israel this year, we took some extra steps to prepare: We heard there was an egg shortage, so we gradually built up a stash over the past two weeks large enough to share with those who might need them. We heard that fresh chicken is tough to get during the holiday, so we stocked our freezer. And we bought the necessities: Romaine lettuce, parsley, raisins and wine for charoset.
But there were some things for which we couldn’t prepare. We’re making a Seder-to-go for a single person without the time or materials to prepare a Seder on his own, but with Israel now in unprecedented lockdown a day before Passover and intercity travel barred, it’s not clear he’ll be able to come by to pick up the food. I had saved my regular grocery shopping for fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat for the week of the holiday, but now there are huge lines outside grocery stores and many empty shelves inside. Sentries outside take the temperature of every customer and all shoppers must wear masks. Food shopping has become a source of great stress.
Then there’s the emotional component. My wife and I find ourselves vacillating between the urge to take a bit of a pass this year due to the circumstances and our physical and emotional exhaustion, and the instinct to muster as much strength as possible to show our children that despite everything we’re not going to let it ruin our holiday.
Over the last two nights, I interrupted my holiday prep to celebrate a friend’s daughter’s baby-naming ceremony over Zoom and offer condolences to another friend on a Zoom shiva call.
Both occasions were reminders of how, despite the challenges, we should be counting our blessings this year, as every year. When I recited the Seder line last Passover “In every generation they rise up to destroy us,” I couldn’t have imagined that a year later that enemy would be a microscopic virus threatening all of humanity. This year when I offer the traditional prayer to celebrate this holiday of freedom “Next year in Jerusalem,” it will have new meaning for me. — Uriel Heilman, Modiin, Israel
Just call me Trebek
Why is this night different than all other nights? Because on this night we will be playing virtual trivia. I, being the Alex Trebek of the family, have put together a trivia game that I will host. This game will challenge the most ardent trivia aficionado. Categories are as far-reaching as a visual round of celebrities behind surgical masks and hats to “Jeopardy!”-staple potpourri. We will be playing pub trivia-style with 15 members of my family. Each household is a team and they each have access to one Google sheet for their answers. The winner receives bragging rights for the rest of the year. This is the start of a new Passover tradition. Next year in Jerusalem! — Rebecca Blumenthal, New York City
I’m introducing my girlfriend to my parents — through Zoom
I’ve been dating my non-Jewish girlfriend for around four months now, and things are going really well. I’m using Duolingo to learn Spanish, her first language, and she’s excited about joining my family’s Passover dinner. For this lifelong New Yorker, it will be her first experience of the holiday.
I hope we’re still together on Friday — the day after my family’s planned online Seder.
OK, that’s a slight exaggeration. But Emily has yet to meet my parents or the rest of my family, which like many Jewish ones is known to interrogate the new significant others of their offspring upon meeting them. It’s good-natured, but even in one-on-one situations — the kind that can take place around a Seder table, in my aunt’s kitchen, on the couch after dessert — it can be overwhelming.
Now I’m picturing a Brady Bunch-style array of family member’s faces on my laptop screen interrupting each other to bombard Emily with questions: How’d you two meet? Has he treated you well? Have you really never had matzah before?
One of the interesting tests of this year’s Seder presented itself before Emily asked to join — how focused my family can stay on the Haggadah. Who knows, maybe the Zoom format — bringing whoever is speaking to the forefront of the screen disincentivizes talking over people — can bring some order to the usual disorganized chaos that ensues at my family Seders. — Gabe Friedman, New Jersey
This isn’t what I thought my first time hosting Seder was going to look like
I’ve spent every Passover of my life — growing up, in college and as an adult — with either my parents or my parents-in-law. Since my wife and I began dating seriously a little over a decade ago, we’ve alternated having the Seders at my parents or hers. We’ve kept the rotation sacrosanct, even as we moved from New York City to Tel Aviv and back, and became parents ourselves. When I meet an engaged Jewish couple, I give them one piece of advice: Don’t mess with the Passover rotation.
This year, for the first time and with only 36 hours notice, we’re messing with that rotation. We had holed up for weeks with close relatives, but on Monday, our son’s pediatrician told us that to avoid getting COVID-19, we should return alone to our apartment. And that’s where we’ll be doing the Seders, by ourselves.
I always knew that one day we’d be hosting the Seder, and it’s a moment I’ve always looked forward to. We love hosting big holiday meals, and this is the biggest. But I assumed it would happen under much happier circumstances — maybe after our parents had grown a little older and passed the torch to us. I always envisioned crowding our relatives in our apartment and, after a colorful Haggadah reading, hauling out a spread that I hoped would meet their culinary standards.
This year is … not that. For the past day, my wife and I have been scrambling to make our kitchen kosher for Passover, get whatever food we need and cook a bare-bones, but hopefully still festive meal. It’s an overwhelming process, but I’m telling myself that it’s just practice for the real thing, when we can be with our extended family again — and maybe even invite them to our table. — Ben Sales, New York City
With the generations separated, the spirit of the Seder is missing
It’s hard for me to muster the energy to care about Passover this year. For me, Passover has always been about coming together with family, eating my mother’s matzah balls, debating what extra thing we should put on the Seder plate to represent oppressed groups (I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where social justice was our main form of religious expression). The Haggadah we normally use is a photocopied relic that my mother and her friend went through by hand and crossed out all references to God as “He.”
This year, my family and I are in Los Angeles, where we’ve temporarily moved during this crisis with our young children. We are quarantining under the palm trees and while my husband’s family is literally in the house next door, we will each spend Passover in our own homes, respecting the importance of social distancing. My mother-in-law is cooking soup and making chopped liver that she will drop off on our doorstep, for which I’m incredibly grateful. But it’s hard to muster the energy for a Zoom seder. The point of a Seder for me is the cross-generation togetherness, the closeness, the debates, the questions, the talking over one another and the complaining about how long the Seder feels. We will do our best to replicate that — but in a 15-minute version through a computer. — Debbie Kolben, Los Angeles