Twelve months ago, when the coronavirus pandemic had just changed our world and led to a lockdown, I wrote what proved to be my first of many columns about COVID-19:
“No matter how long the outbreak and its fallout last, it has already hurt the quality of our lives and has made us care even more deeply about the kinds of activities that we otherwise take for granted. What's been especially tough about this particular crisis … is that it's stolen from us the very things that make us human.
“Thanks to a phrase that sounds like it came right out of George Orwell's ‘1984’ – the sterile term ‘social distancing’ – we're now either too panicked or too afraid to greet friends with hugs or handshakes. … And to make the restrictions even more personal, with Passover approaching, many people are no doubt going to think twice about opening up their seders to friends and relatives – something that many of us used to do without thinking.”
Twelve months later, although much progress has been made, there’s still no definitive end in sight to this scourge. Even with vaccinations being rolled out to millions nationwide, the pandemic news every day is largely negative and only sporadically encouraging.
We hear about more surges, followed by the occasional drop in cases, which sometimes leads to an easing of limits. That’s inevitably followed by new surges and dire warnings by infectious disease experts that new strains of the virus could soon become the latest “worst” point of the pandemic. That in turn leads to more warnings by government and health officials to remain vigilant with mask-wearing, hand-washing and basically avoiding most human contact.
Meanwhile, the vicissitudes of the pandemic have understandably kept first-responders, doctors, nurses and health care personnel wary and extremely weary, and have left most of us in a state of perpetual anxiety as COVID-19 has stolen most in-person events and has kept families stuck in a mostly virtual world.
Now, with Passover just three weeks away (the first seder will be March 27), we find ourselves with a new set of worries as we approach our second straight Festival of Freedom that will be framed by a “new normal” that has worn out its welcome mat.
That got me thinking that, at this year’s seder, we should consider answering eight questions – the original four asked by the youngest seder participant and four “COVID versions” so we all better understand the last year while also trying to see a path forward to better days, if not exactly a return to our elusive “normal.”
Traditional Ma Nishtana: Why is this night different from all other nights?
COVID version: Why are we greeting Passover for the second straight year without family and friends present or by staring at computer screens near our seder plates?
Question 1: On all other nights we can eat either leavened bread or matzah, but tonight – only matzah?
Question 1, COVID version: Why should we once again avoid sharing our matzah with anyone not in our immediate household – unless Elijah appears to us, socially distanced, of course?
Question 2: On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but tonight we also eat a bitter herb – maror.
Question 2, COVID version: Why do we need to eat a bitter herb this year when the last year was bitter enough without eating horseradish?
Question 3: On all other nights we dip one food in another, but tonight we must dip twice. First we dip karpas in salt water and then we dip maror in haroset.
Question 3, COVID version: Passover involves recalling 10 nasty plagues directed at the Egyptian people; would it be OK if we skipped reading about the plagues a year after our 21st century plague has killed more than a half-million Americans and sickened millions worldwide?
Question 4: On all other nights, we sit straight in our chairs, but tonight we lean to one side.
Question 4, COVID version: Why must we continue to sit at least 6 feet away from anyone who is a guest at our seder – preferably in the next room?
It will be important for seder participants to reflect on both the traditional and COVID seder questions so that we understand both our past as well as our uncertain and fragile future.
As far as Passover traditions go, I will still look forward to Passover, because, as I wrote a couple of years ago, the seders inevitably transform me into a “Proustian Jew,” which refers to the French writer Marcel Proust’s signature novel, “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu” or “In Search of Lost Time.”
The book, which was published in English under the title “Remembrance of Things Past,” is based on Proust’s real-life experience in which he relived a cherished childhood memory after sipping tea and eating a biscuit called a madeleine.
Proust’s ability to link present smells and sounds to past memories is something that we all should try to do this Passover so that we could have our spirits lifted by being transported back to the carefree seders of our youth.
For me, that means eating gefilte fish, which will enable me to smell my bubbe’s gefilte fish that she’d make all night from scratch, and feasting on matzah ball soup, which will bring me back to the seders of the ‘50s and early ’60s, when my grandmother would make borscht and my mother would make chicken soup without the aid of boxed ingredients.
If there was ever a year when we desperately need to both reimagine Passover and to honor our long-held traditions of the holiday that celebrates our freedom as a people – this is the year.
LARRY KESSLER (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro. He blogs at larrytheklineup.blogspot.com.