For widows and widowers Pesach is one of the hardest holidays. At the time when the world is celebrating spring, a season of hope and new beginning, the absence of the loved one is especially painful. This year again I would celebrate the Seder with people I love but they are not my “real” family. My husband died 9 years ago and my daughters live in the US. My situation is not unusual, for those of us who have suffered a loss, the holidays are never the same. Below is an essay that I wrote several holidays ago about Pesach and the widow.
In recent years, just before Pesach, together with anticipation I also experience a feeling of loss. I am already sad thinking of those who would be absent from my Seder Table. The list is getting longer every year: it includes my parents and my husband who are no longer alive, my daughters who are abroad, and my only brother who will celebrate the holiday with his family.
People complain about spending the holidays with their family, and psychological studies have proven and quantified the existence of a particular holiday stress. In Israel, a family-centered society, it is common that unmarried people flee the country, regardless of the destination, just not to be around when everyone else is with the family.
Since we spent many years in the US away from Israel, not being here during the Seder is not a good solution. Yet, at the risk of appearing Scrooge-like, it is out of the question, for me, to spend the evening with a lucky family that doesn’t have a list of those who are missing from the table.
With no easy solution, I spent the first Jewish holiday a few months after my husband died on my own, at home. Somehow it felt comfortable and peaceful, and I had time to remember my family history through its holidays. I did not have many visual mementos from those times, but they were vivid in my mind.
But I do have a record for at least one holiday. In Passover of 1990, in the early days of the video camera, my brother rented one for the holiday and recorded the celebration. I always remembered those occasions as full of love and joy, but carefully examining the home movie, I could also detect those instances of subtle tension, the impatience of my husband with my father, a frustration of a young child, the futile attempt to get everyone’s attentions etc. Those are probably the materials that holiday stress is made of, and it is also the essence of a real family holiday as opposed to a nostalgic memory on an idyllic one.
In 1990 we were still a lucky family, no one was absent from our Seder table, or so I thought . But I know now that the feeling of loss, which I experience today, was present in my parents’ life for years. My father’s last Seder with his own parents was in Berlin in 1933 when he was 20 year old, soon afterwards he immigrated to Palestine and never saw his family again. And my mother too, at that point, had lost not only her parents but also two of her brothers.
Throughout the Passover Seder we are instructed to remember and to tell stories of our past. The Exodus from Egypt resulted in a huge gain for the Israelites but they also endured great losses and Moses himself had died before entering the promised land.
Loss is significant in the Jewish tradition, and as such it is present in most of our holidays. A friend reminded me that even the prophet Elijah, who is invited to the Seder every year, is alway absent.