Passover During A Pandemic

Every year for as far back as I can remember, my family has gathered for Passover. In my childhood, we had seders at my aunt and uncle’s house with my cousins Jody and Jeff. Then we all started doing a second seder together at our house. Every year, no matter what else was happening, we had seders. They were wild and chaotic and so much fun. Passover was my favorite holiday and was my first introduction to Jewish culture, history, and religion.

Once I married, the tradition shifted, but nevertheless, every year we had seders, one with my family at my parents’ house, one with my husband’s family either in New Jersey or the Bronx or later in Newton. They were all wild and chaotic and a great deal of fun.

Then we had grandchildren, and we began hosting one of the seders at our house, relieving my mother of the burdens of preparing the seder. We love hosting the seder, although the craziness beforehand and during makes me appreciate what all those who had hosted in the past were experiencing. Trying to convert our house to Passover dishes and pots and pans while also cooking some food ahead of time, renting tables and table cloths to accommodate the crowd, and then attempting to participate in the seder while also warming and serving food was a logistical challenge.

Passover 2019

But seeing my family gathered together around our table made it all more than worthwhile.

My dad and Remy, Passover 2016

Harvey and Nate

So here we were, facing Passover during the social distancing brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. How were we going to celebrate without being together? Would this be the first year ever in my memory that I would not be going to a seder? The thought saddened me, as I know it did for Jews all over the world.

Fortunately, my nine-year-old grandson Nate presented us with a challenge and an idea. Could we do a virtual seder using Zoom, the platform his school was using for remote learning? We spent some time learning how to use Zoom and thinking of how we could do this.

We scanned the Haggadah my family has used forever (The Haggadah for the American Family—mostly in English and accessible to all) and figured out who would read which parts. We added back in the handwashing we usually overlook. Nate and Remy practiced the four questions. Then we distributed a PDF of the scanned Haggadah to all who would be attending with their parts designated in the margins. As a final touch, Nate filmed himself doing an introduction and explanation of how things would work, and I emailed it all to everyone along with a Zoom invitation.

Nevertheless, the day of the first seder, I was feeling a bit blue. Sure, I had a lot less work to do, but that made me feel a bit at loose ends. Was it really Passover? I set the table for two with our seder plate filled with the usual ingredients, our cups for Elijah and for Miriam, our matzah holder, and salt water for the parsley.  It looked empty. We even put on nicer clothes than what we’ve been wearing since self-quarantining to make the day feel special. And then we waited for our guests to arrive in the Zoom waiting room.

Our seder table 2020 (before the seder plate was filled)

And they all showed up on time, ready to go. After chatting a bit and saying hello, our grandson Remy, only five, asked if we could have a virtual group hug. Can you imagine how happy that made me? We all reached out our arms to each other. What an amazing insight for a five-year-old—to recognize that we all needed that embrace, even if it was only across the internet.

I asked if everyone had a seder plate, and sure enough, everyone had made the effort to put together as best they could a plate with charoset (or an apple), moror, an egg, a shankbone (or a plastic sheep), and parsley or some other green. It was so uplifting, seeing that everyone had made the effort to make this a real Passover. Here are a few examples; you can see the creativity involved.

In fact, my younger daughter Maddy went all out and made chicken soup and matzoh balls, something she had never cooked before, and it looked amazing. My older daughter Rebecca made homemade macaroons. Everyone cared enough to do whatever they could to honor our holiday and our traditions. Suddenly it felt like this was really Passover.

Once we started the seder, it was almost as if we were all in the same room. Nate and my husband shared the responsibilities of being the leader, an honor Nate had certainly earned by virtue of his efforts and creativity in getting the seder organized. We went through our Haggadah as we usually do, adding a few extra comments appropriate to the situation—talking about the need for handwashing, adding an eleventh plague for COVID19, and recognizing the current meaning of the lesson that the wise child is the one who works for the benefit of all humankind, not just for him or herself.

Nate and Remy did a beautiful reading of the four questions, first in English and then in Hebrew. Then I read something our rabbi had written, describing how this Passover is different from all other Passovers and making us all think about our gratitude to those on the front lines of this pandemic—the medical personnel, those working at grocery stores and drug stores, the delivery people, the police and fire and other emergency personnel. Her words also gave us hope that as with our ancestors in ancient times, we would pull through and get out of this contemporary time of captivity.

And then we shared our dinners together, gefilte fish, soup, or whatever we each had prepared for that evening. Nate and Remy searched for the afikomen in their own home, and we sang for Elijah, but didn’t let anyone else inside. We pulled out whatever we had for dessert, and then we said good night.

Of course, it wasn’t the same as being together. Zoom makes it hard to have individual conversations or any real extended conversations that aren’t interrupted by the chatter of everyone else. And there are no hugs and kisses to say hello and goodbye.  But we had celebrated Passover. We had been together. We had remembered our own family traditions as well as the traditions of Jews everywhere around the world and throughout all time. We had had a seder.

Next year we hope we will be together in one space. But maybe this year’s seder will be the one we will always remember best. Because we all cared enough to make it real, to feel the connection to each other, and to appreciate what our traditions have taught us about hope and freedom and gratitude.

Passover wishes and thoughts

 

Passover Seder Plate

Passover Seder Plate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

As we approach the first night of Passover on Monday evening, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed, as I usually am this time of year.  There is the cleaning, shopping, cooking, and all the other details that go into preparing the house for Passover and for the seder.  I am also feeling torn because there are so many things I want to do in connection with my research and the blog.  I have lots of photos to scan and post, both from my Brotman relatives and my Rosenzweig relatives, stories that need to be written, documents to request, people to contact.  But I do not have time.  So while the kugel is baking and before I start turning over the dishes and pots and pans for the holiday, I thought I’d take a few minutes to ponder what Passover means to me this year.

 

Passover was once my favorite holiday of the year.  I loved the seder because as a child, it was my only formal exposure to Jewish history and Jewish rituals.  I grew up in a secular home.  We did not belong to a synagogue, I did not go to Hebrew school, and there were no bar or bat mitzvahs celebrated in our family when we were children.  It was just fine with me, but I was also very curious about what it meant to be Jewish.  Passover gave me a taste of what being Jewish meant and could mean.  My Uncle Phil, my Aunt Elaine’s husband, had grown up in a traditional Jewish home, and although he was not terribly religious either, he wanted to have a seder.

 

So every year we had a seder, first only at my aunt’s house, and then my mother started doing a second seder at our house.  My uncle, the only one who knew Hebrew, would chant all the blessings and sing all the songs, and the rest we would read in English from the Haggadah for the American Family (not Maxwell House).  I was enchanted—I loved the music, the stories and all the rituals. I looked forward to it every year.

 

 

As an adult, I began my own exploration of what it means to be Jewish.  I married a man from a traditional family, and he wanted to keep the traditions and rituals that were part of his childhood.  I also wanted to learn more and do more.  I took classes, I read, I got involved with the synagogue, and over time the Jewish holidays and rituals and prayers and services became second nature to me and provided me with meaning and comfort and joy.

Passover has become just one small part of my Jewish life and identity now, and over time, it has lost its magic.  It no longer is my favorite holiday of the year.  The matzoh gives me indigestion, the chore of changing the dishes and pots and pans has become tiresome, and the seder is so familiar that it no longer feels fresh and new and exciting.

 

If I look at it through my grandson’s eyes, I can feel some of that old excitement, but he is still too young to ask questions or to understand the stories.  He just likes the songs and looking for the afikomen and being with his family, which is more than enough for now.  This picture, one of my favorite pictures ever, captures some of that feeling.  From generation to generation, traditions are being preserved.

L'dor v'dor  Harvey and Nate

L’dor v’dor Harvey and Nate

 

But this Passover I will try to take the time to think about things a little differently.  I will think not just about Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and going from slavery to freedom.  I will think about all my maternal ancestors who made their own Exodus by leaving poverty and oppression and prejudice and war in Romania and Galicia to come to the place where they hoped to find streets lined with gold.

 

I will think of my grandfather Isadore, the first Goldschlager to come, leading the way for his father, his mother, his sister and his brother.  I will think of how he traveled under his brother David’s name to escape from the army and come to America.

 

I will think of his aunt, Zusi Rosenzweig, who met him at the boat at Ellis Island.  I will think of his uncle Gustave Rosenzweig, who was the first Rosenzweig to come to the United States back in about 1888, with his wife Gussie and infant daughter Lillie, a man who stood up for his extended family on several occasions. And I will think of his aunt Tillie Rosenzweig Strolowitz, who came to the US with her husband and her children, who lost her husband shortly after they arrived in the US.  I will remember how she took in my grandfather and his sister Betty when their father, Moritz, died, and their own mother and brother David had not yet arrived.

 

And I will think about my great-grandfather Joseph Brotman, who came here alone in about 1888 from Galicia, whose sons Abraham and David from his first marriage came next, and whose son Max as just a ten year old boy may have traveled to America all alone.  I will think of Bessie, my great-grandmother for whom I am named, who brought two small children, Hyman and Tillie, on that same trip a few years later, and who had three more children with Joseph between 1891 when she arrived and 1901, when Joseph died.  The first of those three children was my grandmother Gussie Brotman, who married my grandfather Isadore Goldschlager after he spotted her on Pacific Street while visiting his Rosenzweig cousins who lived there as well.

 

All of these brave people, like the Israelites in Egypt before them, pulled up their stakes, left their homes behind, carrying only what they could carry, to seek a better life.  I don’t know how religious any of them were or whether they saw themselves as brave, as crossing a Red Sea of their own.  But when I sit and listen to the blessings and the traditional Passover songs this year, I will focus on my grandson and see in him all the courage and determination his ancestors had to have so that he could be here, free to live as he wants to live and able to ask us, “Ma Nish Ta Na Ha Leila Ha Zeh?” Why is this night different?

 

Why is this night different from all other nights? It isn’t because we are free; it’s because on Passover we remember what it was like not to be free and to be grateful for the gifts of those who enabled us to be free.

Happy Passover to all, and thank you to all my  Brotman, Goldschlager and Rosenzweig relatives for making this such an exciting journey for me.

 

 

 

 

 

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