How I’m Celebrating Passover in the Age of Coronavirus

Social distancing rules are upending some Passover holiday traditions but also creating new ones.

Every year at Passover, we go to my mom’s house for a seder, which is a big, communal meal with the extended family, where almost every food we eat has some kind of symbolism. It’s a joyous, Thanksgiving-like affair with a lot of sharing of food—and germs. There’s a plate stacked high with matzo (unleavened bread) that gets passed from person to person. There’s a bowl of saltwater where everyone dips a piece of celery or parsley. And often, people end up sharing a Haggadah, the booklet we read and sing from as we retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Find out more about what Passover is and why it’s celebrated.

How is this Passover different from all other Passovers?

This year, everything’s going to be different, thanks to social distancing rules, when Passover begins on the evening of April 8. We’ve decided to host our seder on Zoom, the online video platform since we can’t travel from Colorado to my mom’s house in Chicago. Naturally, I’m sad that I can’t be with my family physically but I’m glad we’re being innovative.

Normally, we have anywhere from 12 to 15 people packed in at my mom’s house, depending on how many leaves she can find for the table and how many chairs she can fit around it. This year, we’ll be spread across three different households: my husband Ian, my daughter Terra, and me in Colorado; my mom and her partner in Chicago; and my brother and his wife about 45 minutes away from them. These are 10 etiquette rules you can safely ignore because of coronavirus.

Keeping the connection

We taught my mom, who’s 77, and her partner, who’s 84, how to use Zoom a couple of weeks ago, when we realized that we wouldn’t be able to travel. Then, we decided to have a family happy hour over Zoom for practice and connection. That went so well that we had another one that began on a Friday afternoon and ended up turning into a Shabbat (sabbath) celebration.

Technology and tradition

Some families refrain from using technology on the sabbath and on holidays. For me, it’s about the intention, not the letter of the law. There’s a concept in Judaism that elevates the preservation of human life above all else, and if technology is what’s keeping us all safe from coronavirus, I have no difficulty with it. In fact, a group of rabbis in Israel made an announcement expressly permitting the use of technology this year. Not all rabbis agree with this, but it makes sense in our family.

Preparing for the holiday

Passover always involves a lot of deep cleaning. Like everyone else, I’ve been cleaning and sanitizing my home for weeks because of coronavirus, so I think with that head start, I’m ready for the holiday! These are the four household products that kill coronavirus according to Consumer Reports.

We’re not overly concerned about germs being spread among my husband, daughter, and me since we all live together. So, we’ll still pass the matzo plate, but we will use individual ramekins for the saltwater.

Family foods

I’ve heard that some families who live closer to each other are making little seder to-go kits that they can pick up from each other’s doorsteps. Each person or household contributes one or two items, like a socially distant potluck. I bet we’d do that if we all lived closer to each other.

My mom makes a brisket every year, and it’s famous with all her friends. I can’t replicate that, so I’ll probably make a chicken dinner for the three of us, if I can. Chicken has been hard to find in the grocery stores with all the shopping frenzy lately, so I might end up substituting eggs or some other seasonal food. We’ll probably have a potato kugel instead of our usual matzo kugel since my husband came back from the store with a huge 10-pound bag of tubers.

I’ll miss having my mom’s Matzo Charlotte, a cake made with apples, cinnamon, and matzo, for dessert. My daughter, who is three and a half, loves helping me cook, so maybe this is the year I start teaching her to make it. Maybe she’ll even want to help me with matzo brie for breakfast the next day.

Telling the story

Passover hagaddahtovfla/Getty Images
My mom mailed me a couple of hard copies of the Haggadah they use, so we can all be on the same page. I’m studying to be a rabbinical pastor, so I wrote some additional readings and have them in PDF forms. Zoom makes it easy to share documents like that right on the screen.

The Passover story feels especially on point this year. We have a literal plague, and we’re worrying for our children. There’s a well-known passage about how Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, though the Hebrew word is more accurately translated as narrowing. Here we are having to narrow our holiday, narrow our focus. In our seder, I’m planning to acknowledge that narrowness, and discuss as a family how we can find spaciousness, how we can open. Learn more about the 10 plagues of Egypt.

Modifying tradition

With all the other changes we’re going through, I want to be very conscientious about maintaining traditions wherever we can. We won’t have Mom’s special china, but I plan to use other family heirlooms, like the candlesticks and wine goblets that have been passed down from my ancestors.

At the end of the meal, it’s customary to open a door for the prophet Elijah. This year, we’ve been discussing what message that sends about inviting people into the house in a time when we’re supposed to be isolating ourselves. But it’s an important tradition that displays our trust that we will survive, just as we did in Egypt. I think, in the end, we’ll open the door.

Modern-day miracles

The Passover story highlights so many ancient miracles. But I’m seeing miracles happening all around us now. In a time of separation, my family is connecting more than ever because we’re making a concerted effort and not taking each other for granted. We’re creating new traditions and, for me, that’s a miracle.

A lot of American Jewish families conclude the seder with a wish for the future, often saying in unison, “Next year in Jerusalem!” I think we’ll modify our statement this year to, “Next year with each other!” After all, family and friends are one of the 12 wonderful things that will never be canceled.

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