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‘Tis the season to celebrate (coronavirus and all)

After nearly a year of coronavirus Jewish holidays, we wanted to share what we've learned about how to do festivities at a distance, as we start this winter holiday season
The table in the Wolkenfeld home pre-pandemic, as they prepared to host a large meal, January 2020. (courtesy)
The table in the Wolkenfeld home pre-pandemic, as they prepared to host a large meal, January 2020. (courtesy)

As Jews who spend most of September and October celebrating a long list of Jewish holidays, from the well-known (Rosh Hashanah) to the less famous (Shimini Atzeret), we always laugh a little to hear the media reference “the holiday season.” By the time Thanksgiving preparations kick into high gear, we have usually had just a few weeks to recover from the frenetic “shop-cook-eat-pray-repeat” pace of the Jewish holiday season.

This year, the return to post-holiday life has given us time to reflect on the “new normal:” The Jewish community has now observed nearly all of our holidays under the strange circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. From celebrating Passover under a shelter-in-place order last spring to an entire fall holiday season that was reinvented by health restrictions, we feel ready to offer some advice to our friends and neighbors who are just beginning to think about a winter holiday season transformed by the pandemic. 

We assume that, just as our Jewish community prioritized health, safety, and compliance with all relevant public health guidelines, most Americans are also approaching their holiday season with that same spirit of responsibility and solidarity. And we know that even radically  transformed holidays can be a source of joy and inspiration. 

Focus on Food and Family

Passover, which began in April this year, is typically a time to gather and eat in large groups. In our home, tables stretch from the dining room through the living room, often resulting in a last minute need to move armchairs and furniture to squeeze in a few more guests. Family of origin, family of choice, and the mandate to ensure that everyone in the community has a place to celebrate — all of these dictate the parameters of a person’s Passover seder. Fast forward to 2020, and the question: “How are we going to feed everyone who is coming to our home?” became “How are we going to feed… everyone??” In the scramble that ensued, we realized that making sure that people have the food they need may seem basic, but it is important. 

Make sure that people have what they need to celebrate, even if normal shopping, cooking, and enjoying the hospitality of friends and family is not possible. Volunteers within our synagogue community delivered hundreds of subsidized Passover meals to their friends and neighbors so that they could cope with the new reality of a shelter-in-place order instead of searching for a kosher brisket. Communities of all kinds, whether centered around a house of worship, a workplace, or an extended family, can likewise ensure that each individual member of that community has access to the basic materials one needs to celebrate.

Passover’s liturgy includes an insistence that all who are hungry may come and eat, and we did our best to feed hungry mouths. But holiday food is so much more, and so it is worth thinking in advance about the food that is definitional to your experience. If Aunt Sue’s cranberry sauce is what makes the meal, then it may be time to convince her to share the recipe. Hold a family Zoom for cooking, ship hard to find ingredients, do whatever it takes. Give yourself and your loved ones permission to hold out for the foods that make the experience feel authentic, even while acknowledging that we are lucky just to have enough to eat. 

Identify What Is Essential (and What Isn’t)

When the fall holidays came in September 2020, we had hard choices to make. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the “days of awe” are typically characterized by packed synagogues and hours-long prayers set to ancient and inspiring melodies. But loud communal singing in a packed sanctuary was not safe this year. Rather than pivot entirely to praying from home, our community clarified which components of the holiday liturgy were most important and which could be omitted this year. Once the liturgy was shortened, we arranged for numerous small scale gatherings for prayer that minimized exposure times and provided space for social distancing. 

Everyone facing a holiday season this winter has to decide which holiday traditions are dispensable, which are feasible, and which we can preserve. It’s hard to say where this process will leave us in years to come. 

Some will certainly be eager to have the old experience back in a post-Covid world, but others may have appreciated jettisoning some of the more taxing elements. Don’t worry about it; nothing will inevitably be lost forever if you skip it this year, and God, Grandma, and/or your children will forgive you. There’s a pandemic, so cut out what you can’t recreate and move on. Next year is another year, and you can reevaluate then.

Empowering Others and Yourself

Once it became clear that our large prayer gatherings in packed rooms would be replaced by numerous smaller and distanced prayer gatherings (in parking lots, a nearby backyard and cavernous rooms), the need for people to take on leadership roles multiplied. In place of one prayer leader for a gathering of 600 people, we had to recruit individuals willing and able to take on leadership roles at dozens of prayer gatherings. This meant that those who never saw themselves as potential prayer leaders sought training and stepped forward to serve their community. 

Without the ability to come together in large gatherings, empower others and empower yourself to take on roles you never thought for yourselves. Share your recipe for stuffing with the niece who won’t be able to travel to your home this year to eat the batch that you’re making. Have you never made a turkey before? This is the year! Share family stories around the holiday table with your children that in prior years were told by  grandparents. The isolation of a pandemic can be a great time to experiment and take on new roles. 

Celebrate….and Help Others Do so Too

Our community wrapped up our series of celebrations with Sukkot, a joyous festival of good food and get-togethers. Though it does have a COVID-friendly aspect, in that most of the gathering typically takes place in makeshift open air structures, it was obviously impossible to celebrate in large groups as in past years, and joy has been elusive in these months. We reminded each other, and will remind all of you: holidays are about celebration. Make sure to create moments of delight that create positive memories for yourself and others in your household. Is there food that you might not serve in normal years because your extended family won’t eat it? This is the year to make whatever you will enjoy. Does hosting large holiday meals leave you exhausted? This year, cook only for yourself, and read a great book. Channel joy in whatever way feels accessible.

Maimonides, perhaps the greatest medieval rabbi, wrote that the biblical paradigm for rejoicing on holidays includes celebrating alongside the widow, orphan, and stranger who have been invited to share our table. These disadvantaged people, even in good times, might never have extended family with whom they can share their holiday. While it may be dangerous in most of  North America to invite others into our homes this year, we can keep their needs paramount in our minds, as we plan festivities for ourselves and for others. What project can you undertake in the coming days so that when you sit down for a holiday meal, you will know that you have done your share to ensure that the vulnerable and disadvantaged are celebrating too?

The passage of time since the lockdowns began in March is the stuff of memes. One day flows into the next and we all wander around wondering what day of the week it is and when it will all be over. Trips, academic calendars, professional conferences, deadlines — all of the normal markers of time have been disrupted. In the Jewish tradition, holidays are a way of sanctifying time. Each holiday is meant to invoke a particular mood at a certain time of year. Perhaps most importantly, in the biblical description, it is up to people to declare these holidays (cf. Leviticus 23:2). The cycle is dependent on our ability to hold on to time. The American winter holidays this year provide that opportunity to all; the pandemic cannot rob us of our ability to structure the months, to decide what is important to us, or to celebrate the values we cherish. 

We wish you happy holidays in advance of whichever holidays you celebrate. You deserve them and you need them.

Co-authored by David Wolkenfeld, the rabbi of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago.

About the Author
Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld is the director of Education at Sefaria, an online database and new interface for Jewish texts. She is passionate about Talmud education and expanding Jewish textual knowledge for all. Sara is also a fellow of the David Hartman Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Her previous experience includes serving as director of Education at the Center for Jewish Life - Hillel at Princeton University, as part of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus. She studied Talmud and Jewish Law at various institutions of Jewish learning in Israel and America and speaks frequently at synagogues, schools, and university communities. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their five children.
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