Passover in the time of Coronavirus

Our nuclear-family seder may have been small and haphazardly thrown together, but it was one for the record books. Photo by Ellen Simon

As chance would have it, much of the world celebrated major holidays in isolation this week. Billions of people celebrated Passover and Easter isolated from their families and the traditions that color our lives.

Last week, I hosted a seder-for-four.  My husband and two children joined me around our normal dinner table crammed with the symbolic trappings of Passover:  a seder plate; a matzoh plate; candlesticks; Elijah’s cup; my daughter’s homemade matzoh cover; and my son’s homemade Afikomen bag.

Accompanying the expected, however, were a host of unusual items.  Perched on the corner, my iPad connected us to my parents in Baltimore through FaceTime.  Half of the items on the seder plate were paper drawings representing those which we could not obtain.

I had no nuts in the house, therefore my charoset consisted of boozy chopped apples.

I had no parsley or celery.  So, we dipped cucumbers in salt water for the karpas, the fresh vegetable meant to represent spring and new life.

I didn’t have a chicken to make matzoh ball soup.  I did have one can of broth and a bunch of bullion cubes.  I combined these with some Mediterranean Lamb Rub I had picked up on some forgotten European excursion.

I didn’t have my mother to make the matzoh balls.  I did have a canister of matzoh meal.  I made matzoh balls from scratch for the first time in my life using a Hadassah cookbook someone gave me for my wedding that had never been cracked open.  It still had a rose from my wedding pressed into the back as a souvenir.

We didn’t have a brisket, but we had some frozen chicken breasts that my husband threw into the slow cooker with a bullions cube and some seasonings.

I didn’t have the ingredients to make my usual Passover chocolate cake.  I did have eggs and sugar.  I made meringues.

I didn’t have the Passover chocolates that my children adore, so we made cherry jello and put gummy fish in it to represent the Nile River turning to blood.

Most importantly, I didn’t have anyone outside of the three people I see every day of the week and with whom I have been quarantined for a month.

I have celebrated Passover in many places and in many ways in my life.  I recall the seder I enjoyed in Jerusalem at a professor’s home.  I remember with warmth the seder to which I was invited in London at the home of a friend from Oxford.  I will never forget having seder at a colleague’s house in rural Satigny while I was living in Geneva.  I have experienced many unique and memorable seders with friends and strangers.

This seder may turn out to be the most memorable and meaningful.  I did not worry about lacking any element of the seder plate or ingredient for the meal.  After all, do we not eat matzoh to remember how our ancestors lacked the ability to allow their bread to rise?  Are we not commemorating past affliction so we learn to appreciate what we have even more?

Many have joked about the irony of celebrating surviving the ten plaques while trying to survive this modern plague.  As with most humor, however, there is a very real kernel of truth at its heart.

Perhaps the connections we can draw between Passover and the strange lives we are leading today resonate so profoundly because we are looking for the meaningful in the ordinary.  As the days blend into one another, we typically look to holidays to divide up the year and provide moments of excitement.  This year, our holidays look eerily similar to the mundane quotidian that may be driving a few of us slowly mad.

We have to look to the everyday to find some thing special.  Passover is the perfect holiday to express this sentiment.  We are celebrating the most basic of human rights – freedom.  We do so by remembering harsher times to better appreciate our own circumstances today.  We acknowledge the new life brought by springtime.  We even sing a song expressing our appreciation for everything G-d has given us, singing, “It would have been enough for us.”

This year, the soup tasted more flavorful, the matzoh balls were softer, the seder plate meant more to the children who made it, the candles seemed to burn brighter, and we all laughed off the improvised elements of the evening.

Dayenu.  It was enough for us.

About the Author
Ellen Ginsberg Simon is an attorney and compliance professional in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. She has an M.Phil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford University and is also a graduate of Brown University and Harvard Law School.
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