Jews around the world prepare for a Passover different from any other

Celebrating a holiday with themes of freedom from slavery doesn’t strike Jonathan Salant, Washington correspondent for NJ Advance Media, as ironic while in quarantine. “We have the freedom to do what we need to do to protect ourselves,” he said, noting the sacrifice that healthcare workers have made. He also cites the Refuseniks in Russia and Passovers celebrated in concentration camps during the Holocaust.

“This is a minor inconvenience compared to what Jews have done throughout history,” he said.

Salant was expecting to host 22 family and friends—from as far away as London—for the second seder in his home and to go to his sister-in-law for the first seder. He’d alerted his mother to a flight from New York which he’d seen on sale in February, and she’d sprung for it. He bought a 25 pound turkey from the kosher store. Now, as he plans for what will be an abbreviated Zoom seder, he remembers in translation the Yiddish expression that man plans and God laughs.

“That’s what happened here,” he said.

The Zoom gathering will likely end after the first half of the haggadah—when the meal begins—and since everyone will be eating less elaborate meals in isolation, Salant doesn’t anticipate that they will reconvene for the second half. He does expect, that per usual, he and his wife and another relative will break out guitars when they sing Civil Rights movement-era songs about freedom, like “Mary Don’t You Weep” with lyrics like “Moses stood on the Red Sea shore/Smotin’ the water with a two by four,” and “Oh, Freedom.”

In the seders with which Salant grew up, and in the ones he’s led since, there’s been an emphasis on welcoming those who otherwise don’t have a place to celebrate, which is actually an invitation to the needy codiffied in initial text of the main section of the haggadah, called “Ha lachma anya” in Aramaic. “You don’t want to spend it by yourself,” Salant says of the seder, and he will be inviting others, whose plans the virus derailed, to join on Zoom.

In the digital ritual, many things will be lost. At Salant’s seders, participants pass the matza around the table. “It’s called Passover for a reason,” he said. But he will improvise, as when he takes a page from his synagogue rabbi’s book from a recent virtual service and sends around haggadah texts to the Zoom participants, so everyone is reading from the same edition.

When it comes to the second half of the seder, Salant has long lamented that the crowd thins as people tire and lose focus after the meal. “I’ve always wanted to do a better after,” he said. His rabbi suggested ending the Zoom gathering when the meal begins, and everyone drinking the last two cups of wine on their own. “We will end the abridged seder the way we always end every seder, with my mother leading us in Chad Gadya,” he said.

One advantage of the Zoom seder is that Salant’s son, who lives in Los Angeles and wouldn’t have been able to come in person, will be able to participate. With losses in the family in the past year, this year’s seder will be particularly poignant given those who can’t participate, however. And Salant figures the virus will come up too, maybe as the 11th plague, he says.

Jack Gordon, a documentary filmmaker in Washington, D.C., and his family’s seders, which draw between 20 and 40 people to a Catskills farm or to family in Philadelphia, are potential fodder for a documentary. The gatherings include yeshiva students, pig farmers, Israeli soldiers, humanists, and multi-faith and cultural married partners, he said.

Family would have gathered from across the country and overseas, but this year there’s going to be a Zoom seder, which Gordon anticipates will be abbreviated given attention spans. Also difficult will be the usual artistic themes, where each person selects a section of the haggadah and shares an original poem, or makes a puppet to act the story out, or the like. “Some are more successful than others,” Gordon says. “It’s a fun way to flex a bit.” But that will be tough to do remotely, and his aunt, the family matriarch in the Catskills, has an unreliable internet connection, so she won’t be the Zoom host for fear the conference video would fail.

“It’ll be memorable one way or another,” he says of this year’s seder. And just as his family looks back on seders from the 1990s on VHS tape, when kids dressed as Moses and Pharaoh and someone threw plastic frogs across the table for the second plague, he anticipates looking back on a recording of this year’s Zoom seder. “This is our family’s Thanksgiving,” he said.

Unlike in previous years where there was a clear danger to Jews with anti-Semitism on the rise, the virus this year doesn’t target any particular group. “People are making sacrifices in order for us to be free,” he said of the healthcare workers.

Nora Gross, a licensed massage therapist in New York, expects to have a very different Passover, both because it’s her least favorite holiday and because it will be her first without matzah, given a “newly-aggressive gluten intolerance.” She’d intended to try to invite herself to the social-justice seder that a friend from high school organizes, or to host one herself. But with the shelter-in-place reality, Gross is going to do an abridged Zoom seder with family in Israel.

“My dad and his best friend are neighbors and have both been properly quarantining. They will be physically together for the seder in Jerusalem,” she said. “My brother and niece will be at a separate seder in Givatayim.” Gross’ father decided that he’s comfortable with a Zoom seder amid quarantine, so they will use that technology from the start of the haggadah until the Four Questions. “We figure that’s about my 6-year-old niece’s attention span,” Gross said. “Frankly, I have the attention span of a 6-year-old, so that’s likely to be enough seder for me.”

Given that Passover is her least favorite holiday, she doesn’t have any deep meditations on what it means amid coronavirus. “The preparation is oppressive, and my family seders were always too long and academic for my taste and attention span,” she said. “But I guess it’s the most Jewish thing, because I feel relieved that I don’t have to sit through a whole seder, but I feel totally guilty that my family will miss me.”

Rebecca Schaeffer-Moldovan, director of American Friends of POLIN Museum, has thought about adding another plague to the biblical 10. Schaeffer-Moldovan, who is nervous about preparing her own seders for the first time in her life, is thinking of having a bag of plagues as her mom would do. Ping pong balls represented the seventh plague—hail—for example, and toy frogs the second plague. Schaeffer-Moldovan is thinking of a bottle of Corona beer (although beer isn’t typically kosher for Passover) or hand sanitizer to stand-in for the virus.

Schaeffer-Moldovan planned to share the seder and the Shabbat of Passover in Israel with her family, and then to go to Poland for work for two weeks. Instead, she and her husband will be at home in New York. “I don’t have any kosher-for-Passover dishes and pots,” she said. “I’m not sure if I want to buy anything.” (Many Jews use special dishes for Passover, so they aren’t using everyday ones that come in contact with leavened bread and its byproducts.)

“We will try and make it as close to what a seder is, but who knows,” said Schaeffer-Moldovan, who grew up orthodox and now attends a conservative synagogue. “My brother in Israel is sending me things to talk about at the seder.” She hasn’t thought yet about sharing the seder with others virtually, but she has realized she will be asking the Four Questions for the first time in many years. In many customs, the youngest at the table asks the questions, which begin, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

“I have found a lot of people are wondering how to have a kosher Passover in days when you cannot go shopping,” she said. “What to use as bitter herbs when you have no horseradish. I think a lot of people will not do anything. Sad.”

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