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.

Blogging in a Pandemic, Part II

As we enter our third or really our fourth week of social distancing, self-quarantine, or whatever else you want to call it (no closer than six feet from anyone but each other, washing our hands religiously, no restaurants, no stores except when we can’t get delivery of groceries, and so on), I have to say that this week things suddenly seem much harder and much sadder. But we are still fortunately feeling fine despite having flown twice in March, and we feel very, very relieved, and are so grateful to be home.

And we also feel very grateful that so far our families are also okay and our friends. I almost am afraid to write that for fear of tempting the corona gods. But I know that magical thinking is just superstition. We all just have to keep staying apart, staying safe, and staying home. The anxiety sometimes feels unbearable, but my mantra has always been and continues to be—one day at a time.

We’ve taken some wonderful walks in places nearby, a few of which we’d never been to before. And we’ve taken many walks in our neighborhood, chatting with neighbors from at least six feet apart, and feeling a sense of community and warmth that can be overlooked when we all just drive in and out of our garages.

I’ve cleared out a drawer filled with expired medicines and other products, organized our “junk” drawer, and discovered dust in places you cannot imagine. Every day I try to think of at least one small project to accomplish, even if it is simply remembering to mail a check.

I’ve also started to accept that I will never do some of the things the internet keeps throwing at us: free courses online, free tours of museums and national parks, free videos of exercise classes, and so on. I just can’t focus long enough to do those things. Fortunately, doing genealogy in shorter spurts than usual and writing my blog still provide me with a way to escape from the pandemic pandemonium.

Now we are preparing for a Zoom seder. The planning has given me an opportunity to work with my nine-year-old grandson on that project. In fact, we’ve had more contact with our kids and grandsons during these weeks than we usually do, though not in person. I am reading the wonderful book Hatchet by Gary Paulsen with the older grandson and playing chess online with the younger one. And we’ve had Zoom cocktail hours with friends and with family. So it’s not all bad.

What really prompted me to write this particular post was one of those little benefits I’ve gotten from people spending all this time at home. My brother, who also has been spending more time at home than usual (but who is still working since he is a doctor), was going through a box of papers and photographs that had been my father’s and discovered this photograph.

I know this is not great quality (and my brother’s scan of it does not help). But I am so excited by this photograph. Let me explain why.

This is a photograph of my father as a baby being held by his father with my aunt sitting on her father’s left. My father had written the ages in the margins, and although he had not written the names, it was easy to deduce the identities from the relative ages and the facial characteristics using other photographs of my grandfather, of my aunt as a young child, and even of my father as a baby.

Eva Schoenthal and John Cohen, Sr. 1923

My aunt Eva Hilda Cohen and my grandmother Eva Schoenthal Cohen, c. 1925

My grandmother and my father, c. 1927

But what made this so special is that I had never seen a photograph of my grandfather with his children. All the photographs I had of him were either of him alone or with my grandmother. So seeing this photograph was really touching. Look at how he is looking at his son. There is such joy and love on his face.

It was especially touching because I knew that my father had had very few years living with his father before my grandfather became disabled from multiple sclerosis and was ultimately institutionalized for the rest of his life.  He died long before I was born, and for most of my life I knew almost nothing about him. I didn’t ask when I was young because my father seemed to be reluctant to talk about him. I didn’t know if that was out of sadness or anger or indifference. But I didn’t want to upset him either way.

One of the gifts of doing genealogy and talking to my father in the five or six years before he died in February 2019 was that he finally did talk a bit about his father. And in doing so, I realized that even though he had not spent many years living with his father, my father had loved him. His reluctance to talk about him was due to pain and sadness, not anger or indifference.

The fact that my father saved this photograph and hid it away in a box we never saw before is telling. This must have been a photograph he cherished, something special that he didn’t want mixed in with the hundreds of other photographs he had taken over the years of vacations and friends and family. I am so glad that my brother discovered it and that he shared it with me. It gave me new insights into my father and his father.

Have you discovered any wonderful photographs or other treasures while staying at home? Have you always planned to label and/or scan your family photographs? Maybe now is a good time.