Tag Archives: covid-19

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. 

“Quarantine,” the significance of the number 40, and Passover.

FaceMask

The word quarantine derives from the Latin word quadrāgintā and Italian quaranta meaning “forty.” But how did we get to the number forty as a reference to isolation? 

In his article “The Origin of Quarantine,” Paul Sehdev notes that one of the earliest references to the use of isolation as a strategy for limiting the exposure of a disease such as leprosy can be found in the Bible (although a minimum period of time is not specifically mentioned):

LEVITICUS 13:46: “As long as they have the disease they remain unclean.
They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”

Sehdev goes on to explain that in the fourteenth century Europe first began adopting extreme measures of isolation in order to control the spread of the Black Plague. In 1377 a council in southern Italy declared a mandatory thirty-day isolation period called a trentino for those residing or visiting hotspots mostly affected by the Plague, threatening fines to anyone who even tried to visit the closed off area without license. The period of time was eventually extended forty days, thus changing the term to quarantino

While one can assume that the period of time had been extended out of necessity to more thoroughly contain the disease, why the number was changed to forty at this point in history to become an official term in our language today is curious. Perhaps this seemingly random number has roots in the three Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism where the number forty has particular significance:

In his article Mr. Sehdev goes on to note how the Christian practice of Lent — a period of “spiritual purification” — lasts for forty days, as mentioned in the New Testament:

MATTHEW 4:2 (Jesus fasting in the Judaean Desert): “After fasting forty days and forty nights he was hungry.”)

In Islam the number forty is mentioned several times in the Quran and believed to be the age when a person obtains his or her highest level of wisdom and intellectual maturity:

SURAH al-AHQAF, 46:15: “… When he comes of age and reaches forty years, he says, ‘My Lord! Inspire me to give thanks for Your blessing with which You have blessed my parents and me, and that I may do righteous deeds which please You, and invest my descendants with righteousness. Indeed I have turned to you in penitence, and I am one of the Muslims.”

In Judaism the number forty is written throughout the Torah as a number tied to change/transition, and renewal/purification:

GENESIS 7:4 (Noah and the flood): “For seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living thing I have made.”

EXODUS 34:28 (Moses and the Ten Commandments): “And he was there with
the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water.
And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.”

NUMBERS 32:13: “And the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation, that had done evil in the sight of the Lord, was consumed.”

During the Seder we retell the story of our ancestors the Israelites who were freed from bondage in Egypt and brought to the Promised Land of Canaan (the region in which today’s Israel is located). A trip that should have taken only forty days turned instead into a forty-year period of isolation as they wandered along with uncertainty. Perhaps as a people they needed to first go through this period of struggle together so that by the time they reached their final destination they were ready to embrace their new home and become the unified nation of Israel they were meant to be.

Many cities and states throughout the country and the world today have issued shelter-in-place orders and told their citizens to stay at home in order to minimize the spread of the COVID-19 virus. We are constantly told to keep our distance from others, even family members who may be most vulnerable to the disease. All shops, except for grocery stores and other essential businesses, are completely closed forcing many to work from home or lose their jobs. Students around the country are learning virtually online with their teachers, while healthcare workers are working around the clock to save thousands of lives. But one bright spot may be the number of people who have been reunited by phone or video with friends and relatives who they had lost touch with long ago.

The New York City quarantine officially began on Monday, March 23, and we are now only in our eighth day of isolation. I only hope during these weeks (or months) of uncertainty and fear that we too — like Israel — will all come out of this as a more unified nation and people than we had been going in.

Please take care of yourselves and be good to others.
And I’ll see you on day forty (May 1.)

BIBIOGRAPHY:

Paul S. Sehdev Department of Medicine, Division of Geographic Medicine,University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, 2002.

Salam Islam. “What is the Significance of Number Forty in Islam?”
Published 10/13/19
.

Aish HaTorah Israel Programs. Aish.com Torah portion:
“Ask the Rabbi: The Number 40.” March 29, 2020.

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