A few weeks ago I thought I would write up something about how Jews were planning to celebrate Passover when social distancing prevented us from gathering for seders. It turns out that every other Jew in the media has had the same idea, and they are all reporting that Jews across the world are turning to Zoom. Miraculously people who never make it home for Passover will be celebrating with their families this year from afar. Brisket will be made. Charoset will be chopped. Matzo ball soup will be slurped. We will all be together, even though we are physically apart. We are a resilient and resourceful people! How else do you think we survived nearly 6,000 years of persecution? Not even the Holocaust could stop Passover, for God’s sake! (Probably not the Inquisition, either, or pogroms or all the other shit we’ve been through, but photography wasn’t as widely available then.) Or even Prohibition. The great thing about the Passover seder is there are no rules, really, just a basic framework that can embellished with Marxism, the spirit of American advertising, or drawings of people with birds’ heads.
One of the first things we say at the Passover seder is that everyone who is in need of a place to go is welcome. A seder is not something to be undertaken alone. It is about welcoming the stranger, because we were once strangers in Egypt, and we all know how that turned out. That series of unfortunate events is supposed to have taught us compassion as a people. (It’s not something we always hold to, but you don’t need me to tell you that.) This year, you can still Zoom with strangers if you can’t Zoom with your family. But none of those strangers will feed you.
Before COVID-19, I was full of Passover ambition. This year, 5780 in Jew-time, was going to be the year I resurrected my great-grandma’s gefilte fish recipe. I was going to risk making my apartment stink of fish and onions for three days just so I could share it with you all. But then I lost the thread of the whole thing. It seemed too daunting to go on an epic quest for carp and whitefish while sheltered in place. Not to mention all the grinding and the molding and testing to figure out how Grandma Dora always got her broth to gel while no one else in the family ever could. (My mother, who has made the gefilte fish more often than anyone else, suspects that she added gelatin, a dirty little secret since gelatin is definitely unkosher.) Most of all, I didn’t want to be stuck with 18 balls of gefilte fish, because, quite honestly, I hate the stuff and I always have, even though it’s my beautiful can-do, make-do, they-can’t-destroy-us heritage. The only one who really liked it was my dad, who would eat one ball every afternoon for a snack with a side of horseradish.
This year, my dad will not be with us, either in person or in Zoom. In some ways, I am glad because he was a senior citizen with a lot of respiratory issues and, to make things even worse, he would have had to endure isolation at home with no sports on TV. (Which was a shame, too, because this was always one of his favorite times of the sports-year: March Madness, plus the NBA and the NHL, and the joy and optimism of the very beginning of baseball season.) Also, the first night of Passover this year falls on what would have been his birthday. My own birthday sometimes falls on the High Holidays, which I would argue is worse, but he would counter that at the very least after a day in synagogue, sometimes with fasting, I always got a normal cake that tasted good.
But aside from the lousy food—and truly, Passover food doesn’t begin to get oppressively lousy until about day three when all the novelty wears off and you realize you’re stuck with matzo for five more days and then you start developing cravings for pizza and cheeseburgers—I think he enjoyed the Passover seder. Especially back in the days when everyone was alive and still living at home and there were so many people we had to extend the table and he was the one who assigned readings and decided who was the Wicked Son and also who hid the afikomen. (These are the parts of the Passover seder that give the leader a chance to be diabolical.) We all gathered, we sang, we leaned back against pillows, we drank wine or grape juice out of the set of antique wine glasses that is one of our few family heirlooms, and then we ate gefilte fish and matzo ball soup.
The last time I saw him, it was Passover. It happened to be a Saturday night, which meant The Ten Commandments was on. (It’s always on the Saturday night of Passover/the night before Easter.) We watched it every year when I was growing up. Now that I think about it, it’s probably the movie we watched most often together as a family. We watched it a bit before the seder started when Moses was still a young Egyptian prince. We watched it a bit when the dinner ended when Moses saw God and magically got old. We watched it after dessert while we talked to my sister on the phone when Aaron’s rod turns into a snake. We realized that the plagues sequence goes on for a really, really long time. The Hebrews were just leaving Egypt when I left to go home, and I said goodbye to my dad for the last time he could see me.
The other night I dreamed that it was just a few hours before Passover was set to start. We were sitting in the kitchen in the house where I grew up, at our old table. The window faced west, and the light was gold from the setting sun. I was eating the last of the bread. He was eating the first of the matzo, which he spread with butter. He lectured me for still eating chametz. (He was always very conscious about setting a good example of Jewishness.) “It’s not Passover yet,” I said. “Anyway, you’re dead. You can do whatever you want now.” “I am?” he said. “When did that happen?”
My mother and I had invitations to seder this year. But even before the virus, we didn’t want to be strangers, even welcome ones. We didn’t know how what feelings we would have, or how we would manage them. We didn’t want to be watched. We were going to just have dinner together. Now we will Zoom with my sister. None of it feels right. I feel like we should be carrying on the tradition in some way, even alone at our separate tables in front of our laptops. Not even a global pandemic can stop us! But that doesn’t feel right, either. So I guess grief will do it.
Next year, I promise you, we’ll be in Jerusalem with my great-grandmother’s gefilte fish. But not now.