Passover, the holiday of freedom, takes on an eerie meaning these days when we are locked inside. Now, stuck indoors with nothing but time, I have gotten to thinking about how I will mark the holiday this year. I’ve decided to count my blessings, instead of counting plagues.
Growing up Jewish and secular in America, the Passover seder was always a special time for me. It was one of the two holidays when we had a huge family celebration – the other one being Thanksgiving. Our family was a typically assimilated one, living the post-war American dream in suburban Connecticut. The Jewish connection was felt three times a year: at Hanukkah, when it was painfully evident that we were not Christmas kids, during the high holidays and again at Passover. We went to shul on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. In between, our visits were limited to bar and bat mitzvah celebrations and an occasional wedding. We fasted on Yom Kippur, and we gave up hametz during Passover, even though we were far from kosher the rest of the year.
I come from generations of secular, assimilated American Jews. Ironically, our Sunday mornings often started with bagels and lox from the Jewish deli and ended with a seafood dinner. But Passover was special. Everyone in my family loved matzoh, especially when slathered with butter. I never missed bread, since our sandwiches in those days were made with the tasteless white stuff otherwise known as Wonder Bread. It was no sacrifice for me to eat matzoh for one week a year instead of that airy, nutrient-free marvel of commercial processing, Wonder Bread, which I ate the rest of the year.
The only sacrifice I resented during Passover was on Easter Sunday, when our neighbors’ kids were blessed with Easter baskets full of non-pessadika chocolate bunnies, jellybeans and those sugar-coated marshmallow critters called Peeps. To this day, whenever someone on TV mentions ‘my peeps’, I picture them walking around town with an entourage of tiny pastel-colored confectionary bunnies and chicks scrambling to keep up.
But I digress. Funny how thoughts of Passover bring back the memories of forbidden foods. The one seder meal component most often forbidden to kids was not prohibited in our house: Why was that night different from all others? At our seder table, the kids were allowed to sip that sweet Manischewitz wine, along with the adults. There may have been grape juice available at our huge family seders, but it seemed no one cared what we kids had in our glasses. And so, one of my favorite parts of the seder was the reciting of the ten plagues. Dipping our little fingers into that sticky, overly sweet wine and dabbing the drops onto our plates was fun – especially the part where we licked our fingers after each plague. The names of the plagues had little meaning for me, as I recall. It was all part of some mysterious story about ancient things happening in an ancient time. Blood? Locusts? Pestilence? All those archaic terrors seemed exotic, esoteric and remote.
Fast forward to Passover 2020: Here we are in the midst of an actual plague. There are a few differences, of course. Instead of first-born sons, it seems that our elders are most at risk. And instead of smearing blood on our doorposts as we hole up inside, we smear alco-gel. But the analogy is not lost on me. I have been inside, in voluntary isolation for 4 weeks now. Other than an occasional early morning walk in the deserted streets, I barely see people face to face. Zoom is my daily companion. I mask-up and don gloves once a week and venture out to buy food. As I walk along my little block, I’ve gotten accustomed to seeing the stores shuttered. Only the food shops, vegetable markets and pharmacy are open. I am a city girl, used to finding infinite shopping opportunities just outside my front door. It seems like ages since I’ve had that option and guess what? I’m doing fine. I suddenly realize that I can survive perfectly well without constantly acquiring new things. We were slaves unto shopping, and now, maybe, we are on our way to being cured. I feel terrible for the local merchants who may lose their businesses. But for me, personally, it is liberating to know how easy it is to do without the addiction of having new things.
Every day I am keenly aware of how fortunate I am. Although anything can happen, at the moment I have my health. Of course that can change in a heartbeat. If it does, I will still be grateful for every moment of joy and health I have enjoyed for the past 68 years. My life is full of people I love; people I care about who care about me. This is the greatest blessing one can ask for. My pantry is full of food. My comfortable little apartment is well-stocked with supplies. I am one of the few lucky ones, a comfortable citizen of the first world. For now, I am still able to work and earn money, for which I am beyond grateful. But if that ends tomorrow, which it might, I believe the savings I painstakingly put aside throughout my years of full-time work will still be there. The amount will be diminished, no doubt, as a result of the inevitable recession caused by this pandemic. But I do believe there will be enough for me to live on. That’s all I could ask. I do not take my good luck for granted. My heart aches for the millions of people out there who are not secure, whose livelihood has evaporated and whose future is uncertain. I am distraught about what is happening in my neighboring city of Bnei Brak, where so many misguided people listened to the wrong advice at their great peril. I am distressed, too, about my family and friends in the USA – many of whom live in epicenters of this plague. I worry for them. I worry for the world. And again, I realize how privileged I am.
That’s why I am counting my blessings this Passover. Instead of blood, frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the killing of the firstborn, my mantra is now: hope, love, health, family, friendship, safety, shelter, abundance, livelihood, and savings.