In a competitive ranking of Jewish holidays, Passover (or Pesach, as it’s called by people of the tribe) would have to be seeded high. I know it’s tops for me. What’s not to like? The collective telling of a pretty wild story; free afikomen money when I was a kid; singing; intimidating quantities of food; four compulsory glasses of wine. Flourless chocolate cake that sits like a brick in the stomach. Yes, there’s matzoh, but layer on enough charoset or chicken liver with a little horseradish and you can’t even taste it, baruch Hashem.
Just the mention of those once-a-year foods has me jonesing for a slick gefilte fish patty. Since I can remember, my family has hosted an impressive Seder every spring, led first by my grandfather, now by my father. We clear the living and dining rooms, rent long tables and chairs, and lay out linens, silverware, and Seder plates for a cast of dozens, including family, friends, colleagues, and anyone in the mood for a slightly unusual dinner party, Jewish or not. It’s the one occasion for which the Bernsteins, scattered across the country, sincerely try to show up.
The year will be the first in memory that my dad’s house in suburban Connecticut lies quiet around this special time, as it’s become painfully clear that social gatherings are no longer tenable as everyone in the US works to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus. For my dad — an emergency physician exposed to the virus every day he goes to work — the decision to cancel our Seder was easy, though not without sorrow.
Then, about a week ago, he sent a message to our immediate family’s text group, “Fam Jam” (so named by my 17-year-old sister). “Hi all — what would you think about a virtual Seder? I could set us up with Zoom.” Fam Jam responded enthusiastically. “Yes!!” I said. My brother sent a thumbs-up emoji. The usual silence emanated from my teenage sister, which we took for assent.
In spite of everything we won’t have, we’ll make do. God is not in the details.
Thus was born Digital Pesach 2020, our small foray into tech disruption. It won’t be the same as what we’re used to, or even recognizable. I’ll miss the day of bustle leading into the ceremony: everyone crowding the kitchen, mustering ramekins, peeling potatoes, trying to figure out how to work the food processor. I won’t post to social media my one ritual photo of the waiting tableau, a feast for the eyes before the mouth, candles and wine bottles and brightly illustrated Haggadot poised to play their parts. No one will scan the inside cover of their Haggadah, the slim book that guides the proceedings, studying the column of signatures of all who have used it before and adding theirs to the historical record.
In spite of everything we won’t have, we’ll make do. God is not in the details. Sure, concerns around Zoom management linger; 60-year-old professors of medicine aren’t exactly renowned for their technical prowess. And organizing half a dozen boisterous, lefty Jews to speak in turn presents its own challenges (and frankly doesn’t go that well at our usual, in-person shindig). But “Seder” literally means “order.” As long as you follow the sequence of motions, the exact same from year to year — sanctify the wine, dip the karpas or bitter herb, break the middle matzoh — you have participated. Smaller in scale, quieter in tone, our party will follow the order at a time when the world seems mired in its opposite.
But the longer I thought about the Seder, the more logistical questions arose. Was it worth venturing out to obtain ingredients to cook with, let alone ones certified kosher for Passover (a higher standard than merely kosher)? What about scarcer items for the Seder plate, like a shank bone? And where would I find them? Nashville, where my husband and I live, is hardly a hot spot of semitic culture. Grocery stores carry a — to put it generously — meager selection of Jewish-themed foodstuffs. Of course, I could buy raw ingredients and assemble everything from scratch, but that implies a level of motivation and energy much greater than what I currently possess. After our apartment building was rendered unlivable by the severe tornado that struck downtown Nashville a few weeks ago, necessitating a hasty evacuation and move, our bandwidth for this kind of labor (i.e. the optional kind) is significantly diminished.
I’m no stranger to an improvised holiday. I’ve been unable to make it home for Passover a couple of times before, for reasons of work or expense. Once, when I lived in Seattle, a Jewish friend and I hosted a mini Seder for a group that contained (other than us) zero Jews. They were good sports, but grew restive 15 minutes in, thumbing through their photocopied Haggadot. Another year, I co-led with my mother, who is Indian but could be considered a kind of honorary Jew after a decade of residence in New York City and 13 years of marriage to my dad. In place of shared water, we cleansed our hands with Purell. Absinthe stood in for the bitter herb. Still, those instances hadn’t been circumscribed by a quarantine. Maybe, given the circumstances, I was overthinking the whole thing. I decided to ask some diasporic compatriots about their own Pesach plans.
My suspicions proved well founded. Most of the millennial-and-younger, loosey-goosey Jews of the American secular variety I spoke to — which are most of the ones I know — had hardly realized Passover was fast approaching (beginning April 8), amid the onslaught of pandemic news that makes every day feel three weeks long. My friend Marcus, an engineer in the Los Angeles area, said he had “no plans 😞.” Jeremy replied simply, “Oh…yeah…” Alana, a professional baker in Seattle who described her Jewish heritage as “Russian socialist,” listed potential Seder ingredients already in her home: pho broth, matzoh meal, and duck schmaltz.
“So we’ll probably make matzoh ball pho,” she said. As a chef, Alana can’t observe Pesach too stringently anyway, since she invariably spends the day “covered in chametz,” or forbidden foods like leavened grains, which Jews are meant to eliminate from their homes in the days leading up to the holiday.
“I guess I could be more observant this year,” she said, “but I’ve been stress-baking since I was 5 years old, and right now doesn’t seem like a great time to give up my main coping mechanism.”
That’s the sense I got from a lot of folks: other priorities. Now that obtaining even basic, life-sustaining goods and services has become a trial, the complexity of enacting this religious tradition, which requires, frankly, a great deal of accoutrement, feels prohibitive. Even in a vacuum of activity to fill, many choose the soothing, passive engagement of television. Three seasons into a series rewatch of The Good Wife, I’m the last to blame them.
But not everyone I spoke to was so nonchalant. Jacob Shamsian, an editor in New York of Iranian descent, would ordinarily visit his parents on Long Island for Passover. He and his wife don’t know whether they’ll make the trip this year, but if they do, it won’t be by the usual combination of subway and Long Island Railroad.
The Shamsians also attend a second Seder at the home of Jacob’s grandparents, who live within walking distance in the city. They’ve definitively nixed that plan this year. Jacob said he’ll miss the traditions passed down to him through generations, like the Persian custom of hitting each other with scallions during “Dayenu,” the rousing song that expresses gratitude to God for leading the Jewish slaves in ancient Egypt out of bondage and for the other gifts he has given them: the Torah, Shabbat, the land of Israel.
“My grandfather runs through ‘Dayenu’ while the rest of us run around the table and try to get as many whacks in as possible, while dodging others,” Jacob explained. “My grandmother and grandfather get gentle taps, because I'm not going to disrespect them like that. It's nice imagining my grandparents doing that in Iran, with their parents and own grandparents.”
Those farther from their families face a keener solitude, especially if they live alone. My friend Ashley Thomas, a legal assistant who also lives in Nashville, grew up belonging to a tight-knit Orthodox synagogue in her home town of Memphis. Though she’s become much less observant and moved away, Ashley maintains a connection to that temple, which her parents and extended family still attend. She isn’t sure what she’ll do for Passover, but knows she won’t be making the drive to Memphis. Her aunt, a member of that congregation, has tested positive for the coronavirus, and in any case, the synagogue has shut its doors for the duration. She remembers a few years ago, during a measles outbreak that coincided with the High Holy Days, temple leadership got wind that a family who did not vaccinate their children would be visiting from out of town.
“They sent out an email to the congregation saying, ‘You can’t come to shul if you don’t vaccinate,’” Ashley recalled.
“Jews are a pretty resilient people, and we’ve had to deal with adversity before. I’m pretty confident we’ll figure it out.”
I confess that this story, of a religious community united on the right side of science, warmed my heart. At times I fear that Jews — like members of any creed or culture — can adhere too rigidly to prescribed custom, even when it carries the potential for harm. But my worries have been mostly assuaged by widespread reports of temple closures and remote worship, even from the most devout. It’s in the nature of Jewish belief and practice, after all, to bend to the needs of the moment, like a reed in the wind.
I also spoke with Ashley’s father, Morris Thomas, who still belongs to their synagogue in Memphis, which claims the distinction of being the largest modern Orthodox temple in North America.
“We’re a fairly tight-knit group,” he said. “It would not have been unusual for a regular Friday night Shabbos dinner to have 40 people at your house, and that would go on in five, six people’s houses all across the community.”
Like me, Morris characterizes Passover as the one time of year he’s accustomed to seeing his whole extended family. They’re considering a Zoom gathering this year, though nothing’s been formalized. He’s sanguine about the possibilities for virtual Jewish practice, which he said most synagogues began to offer weeks ago. By the time Pesach rolls around, this mode of meeting won’t feel like such a departure.
“I think that having a Seder with just your immediate family of no more than three to five people won’t be the strangest thing in the world,” he said. “Maybe it will cause the conversation to be more introspective, more intimate. The whole thing is going to have to evolve. Jews are a pretty resilient people, and we’ve had to deal with adversity before. I’m pretty confident we’ll figure it out.”
Buoyed by his hopeful attitude, I ask Morris if he envisions any drawbacks to going ahead with Passover observances in this strange time.
A contemplative pause. Then: “I hate matzoh.”
The Thomases, who classify themselves as modern Orthodox, may be able to connect via videoconference this month. But many Jews, like Jacob and others I spoke to, cannot. The shomer Shabbos, a designation for those who abide by the commandments associated with the Jewish Sabbath, will not use electronics like phones and computers (and elevators and light switches) on the Sabbath and holidays. The Sabbath begins Friday at dusk and ends Saturday after sunset, but this year, due to the timing of Passover, the chag or holiday period extends from Wednesday through Saturday evenings. In our wired age, and especially at a moment when a global pandemic is reshaping reality from hour to hour, that is a long time to go without digital connection.
“Three-day yom tovs, as we call them, are always tough,” said Jacob. “I'm especially not looking forward to it this year since we can't even break up the time by going to shul to see friends, or having guests over, or having big meals with friends and families as we normally do.”
But outside of Shabbos restrictions, Jewish people have gotten creative about marshaling technology to achieve an air of normalcy amid the chaos.
“I Skyped into a bris this morning,” said Neal, a health care administrator in New Jersey of the Orthodox denomination. A bris is the Jewish ritual of circumcision.
“More than 70 people called in. Only the parents and the mohel were present, not even the grandparents. He was all masked up like a surgeon. Everyone said ‘mazel tov’ at the end, it was lovely.”
The synagogue Neal attends shut down weeks ago, partly under the advisement of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which posts updates and guidance on its website. The RCBC, like regional associations across the country, has advised the community to stay home with immediately family for Pesach, “even separated from parents and grandparents,” and not to travel to other parts of the country, “especially not to Florida,” to which Jewish grandparents are legally obligated to migrate upon retirement. Neal noted that cancellations of Passover programming in places like Florida and Arizona will impact the organizations and service workers who make a significant portion of their income on those events.
An important function of the Passover Seder, Neal said, is transmitting the story from generation to generation — so it would take a world-catastrophic event like a pandemic to convince Jews to isolate from parents and grandparents. He also brought up the dark historical resonance for Jewish people of being told we cannot display our culture in public.
“It goes against everything you’ve been ingrained to understand about the importance of practicing openly,” he said. “We have to overcome the urge to fight this.”
Like Morris, Neal highlighted endeavors already underway to forge solidarity and connection, and mitigate a sense of fragmentation taking hold, when, for instance, Jewish mourners cannot form a minyan, or quorum of 10 adult required for saying kaddish, a prayer in honor of the dead. A group of rabbinical authorities has given their blessing to a website called virtualminyanin.com, where worshippers can pray together remotely. Although the rabbis note these minyanim do not technically suffice for certain rites, they can still create an atmosphere of community and social bonding. Neal also told of prominent Jewish singers broadcasting Thursday night, pre-Shabbos sing-alongs for both children and adults, which have proved wildly popular. In some neighborhoods, messages have circulated encouraging people to emerge onto their porches at a stated hour and say the prayer to begin the Sabbath in unison.
For Pesach in particular, some temples are innovating ways for congregants to accomplish certain tasks online, like selling their chametz. Others are assembling all-in-one Seder plate packages, so congregants don’t need to shop at the store, where they might touch items in many different aisles and risk exposure. In all these ways, Jewish communities have shown their commitment to keeping members as safe as possible and trying to lessen isolation through this hardship.
Of everyone I spoke to, Megan Lubin, a freelance audio producer and engineer in Chicago, has contrived the most comprehensive blueprint for a Zoom Seder. She and her cousins, spread across the country, are deep into the planning process. Each participant has been deputized to manage a specific aspect of the event: videoconference logistics, Doodle polling and attendance, internal communications, time zone issues. Lubin grew up in the Pacific Northwest in a Jewish-minority area, so her parents developed many of their own traditions. Now she follows in their footsteps.
“We’ll probably go for an hour,” she said of her Seder. “Somewhere between a meaningful religious ceremony and a symbolic touchpoint. We don’t want people to be tethered to their computers all night.”
We traded resources. Sixth and I, a nondenominational Washington, DC, synagogue and arts center, is hosting a series of webinars, “How to Lead a Virtual Seder.” Alma, an online publication that covers Jewish identity and culture, has posted a guide as well (though their scheme for a potluck by mail seems far-fetched). The writer Jordan Namerow suggested a script for the Four Questions centered around COVID-19.
I asked Megan whether her family will incorporate discussion of the coronavirus, in addition to the content laid out by the Haggadah. Some people I talked to don’t see how the topic can be avoided. Others long for one meal with a semblance of routine and normalcy. Megan plans to poll her coconspirators on their preference, but feels topics of suffering and justice are inherent to the Pesach story.
“You see, we become attached to plan A, but sometimes plan B is the more perfect one.”
“Every Jewish gathering foregrounds a component of community, consideration of the less fortunate,” she said. “It’s very baked into the nature of these observances.”
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a progressive writer and speaker, agreed that the holiday is fundamentally about “liberation from oppression, and the absolute importance of standing up to tyranny.” That makes it all the more important to observe this year, when the physical, economic, and social consequences of the pandemic disproportionately affect vulnerable populations.
Ruttenberg also wants to allay people’s fears that they’re not up to the task of running a Seder.
“You’ve got this!” she said. “The Haggadah is a do-it-yourself guide to running the Seder; reading through it is the Seder itself. You don't need to ‘know’ how to hold a Seder. I hope that some people will walk away from this unusual time feeling more empowered Jewishly, seeing that they can do it even if they didn't think they could.”
Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, the Jewish chaplain at Yale, similarly suggested that we view the holiday as a respite from the madness beyond our front doors, and a perch from which to contemplate its resonance with our own history. In a message to the university’s Jewish community (which he has given me permission to share), Rubenstein noted that in our Seders we re-create a night when households took refuge in their homes because of an “invisible, deadly force that rages outside,” a remarkable correlation to our present-day circumstances.
“We stand in an unbroken chain of Jews who have raised up the sacred order of shared time against the chaos of their own times,” he wrote. “If Passover means one thing this year, it is that the shared bonds of meaning and purpose that stretch across oceans and generations have the power to elevate us above the confusion and isolation of our moment.”
As for his family’s own plans, Neal in New Jersey said they’re still playing it by ear, week by week. He is reminded of a legend about the renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman. During a 1995 concert at Lincoln Center, one of the strings on Perlman’s instrument audibly popped. Rather than call for another violin, Perlman waited a moment, then signaled the conductor to resume and did the impossible: He played the rest of the piece, or something like it that he composed in real time, with a passion and beauty that enraptured the audience.
“You see, we become attached to plan A, but sometimes plan B is the more perfect one,” Neal said. “Even if it takes more work to realize.” ●
Jennifer R. Bernstein is a cofounder and former editor of The New Inquiry. She has written essays and criticism for the The New Republic, The Nation, Pacific Standard, and elsewhere.