A Seder During a Time of Uncertainty and Fear. Again.

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These are stressful times. The Coronavirus/COVID-19 has turned the world upside down by forcing millions to quarantine themselves at home under worldwide Shelter in Place orders by their government. As Passover approaches its first night (beginning Wednesday, April 8), I am thinking about how different this year’s Seder will be for many of us. Large groups of family and friends will not be able to gather in one home to sit at the table and share from the same Seder plate. The preparations of food will also be very different since we won’t be planning, shopping, and cooking for large groups of guests. It may also be a little harder to find ingredients to make our favorite Passover dishes or even take the time to shop.

This Year’s Four Questions before the Passover Seder:

  1. What if this year you cannot purchase all of your favorite Passover products because your local store doesn’t carry them, the stores are sold out, or you are unable to wait on the long line to get in and get them?
  2. What if your friends and family are all isolating themselves in their own homes so you are unable to have the usual gathering around the table in one home?
  3. What if you or someone else in your household is sick and you have to take care of them making it physically more difficult or even impossible to cook?
  4. What if you are not so tech-savvy and don’t feel so comfortable with computer applications or other technology needed to contact family members for a virtual gathering? 

The essence of the Seder and Passover celebration.

Passover has become one of the most widely observed holidays in the Jewish calendar, and perhaps one of the most elaborate. Every year kosher stores convert their markets into kasher-le-Pesach supply markets selling cereal, cake mixes, condiments, and other pantry items deemed acceptable for the one-week festival, while Jewish organizations and publishers print haggadot customized for each community. Homes are cleaned out in order to remove any remnants of chametz or derivatives of leavened grains (such as cake, cookies, bread, cereal, pasta, and beer) in order to make room for matzah which symbolizes the unleavened bread that our Israelite ancestors prepared and ate during their exodus from Egypt. But what if you are unable to observe the holiday this year as you are used to because of the health emergency our nation and world is currently in? 

The main point of carrying out the Seder is to recall our Israelite ancestors who were freed from slavery in Egypt and eventually brought into the Promised Land of Israel. As it says in the Torah, we must retell the story every year to the next generation:

EXODUS 13:8
“You shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.'”

 

The Passover Story and the Importance of Remembering.

I am thinking a lot more these days about those whom I once interviewed for my cookbook “Too Good To Passover” who shared their stories about observing Passover during times that were even more difficult than what we are going through today.

I am remembering the story of Frank Mayo from Egypt who shared how during one Passover around 1939 an angry mob in Egypt claimed that a missing Muslim child had been taken by the Jewish community to get blood to make the matzah. Fortunately this child was found quickly inside of a mosque, but the reaction of the crowd made a big impression on Frank.

I am rereading the story of Amnun Kimyagarov and his wife Zoya originally from Samarkand, a city in Uzbekistan, that was once a part of the USSR. Because religious observance was illegal at that time, all food preparations for the Seder had to be done secretly with the window shades pulled down so that no one would know that they were preparing for a religious holiday meal.

I am smiling as I read Bizu Riki Mullu’s beautiful description of Seders in Ethiopia. For the first night the villagers would sit down in front of the rabbi’s home to listen to his telling of the Exodus from Egypt by heart instead of reading from a haggadah. They would each have a taste of the symbolic Seder foods from a shared basket beside them on the ground, and then after the ceremony walked home by moonlight because it was very dark and they had no electricity.

I am recalling the reaction of Koula Kofinas when I asked her about Passover in Greece during World War II:Celebrate Passover in war time? Are you kidding or something? I don’t remember. I don’t remember because we didn’t have it. We didn’t have anything. We ate anything and everything, just to survive. This is the truth. This is what happened. As my mother used to say, ‘You can’t cover your face with a finger.’”

I am reminding myself of the Inquisitions — a period that lasted several hundred years, and did not officially end until 1834 — when Jews in places like Spain, Portugal, and parts of Italy had to find covert ways to conduct a Seder that would not alert the authorities and get them arrested, or even killed. Rabbi Barbara Aiello, an Italian-American living in Calabria, Italy, explained her family’s tradition of a Seder on the first and fifth nights of Passover to honor Christian neighbors who might have allowed their Jewish friends to kasher a room in their own homes on the fifth night, when the Inquisition authorities would not be suspecting the Jews of ‘Judaizing’. This fifth night is called Seder Hamishi (from hamesh in Hebrew, meaning ‘five,’ and also related to the Yiddish slang word hamish, meaning ‘friendly, welcoming’) has become a way of honoring not only those Jews who had to hide their Judaism or had been forced to convert to Christianity (the Anusim), but a way of remembering those Christians who helped the Jews even upon risk of their own lives. For the Seder Hamishi she always invites her non-Jewish friends.

…And I will never forget the millions of Jews who were fleeing for their lives and were unable to observe Passover at all for years during the Pogroms. World War I. And World War II. 

A Passover that will be different from all other Passovers.

As the days and now weeks of quarantine continue I am humbled by the many Jews during the Holocaust who had to hide and isolate themselves for years to save their lives. As difficult and scary as these times may be, I can still go outside to shop and even take a quick walk if I want to. I can still buy matzah and make haroset. I can still call my friends and family on the internet and see or hear how they are doing.

And right now the whole world is going through this same kind of exile together. 

This year will be a different kind of Seder. Smaller. Perhaps more basic. But the essence of Passover can still be with us. The essential elements during the Seder ceremony are to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and so we must do it in whatever way we can. Even virtually.

But above all: Please remember not to forget. 

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