A few weeks ago, punning off of the surreal nature of celebrating Passover during a pandemic, author and playwright Max Sparber tweeted, “Seder leader: Why is tonight different from all other nights? Me: Holy f—k, where to start?”
Separated from the family and friends they would normally join to retell the biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt, Jews in Minnesota, like elsewhere, put together seders over the video-chat service Zoom – or simply did what they could to mark the holiday on their own.
Many were forced to be first-time seder organizers. Old traditions were set aside, as new ones came to life. And most everyone scrambled to make the best of limited kosher-for-Passover supplies.
“I sort of figured Passover would be glossed over this year and we’d have a couple extra glasses of wine next year to make up for it,” said Eve Zabronsky, 24. Zabronsky, usually with family in Wisconsin for Passover, found a young-adult Zoom seder for the first night of the holiday to log onto instead.
The circumstances were particularly bittersweet for Emma Dunn, 24, as this Passover is Dunn’s first after officially converting to Judaism. Previously, she celebrated the holiday with her boyfriend’s family, or at a community event, but this year she spent the first seder alone with her boyfriend, and logged onto a Zoom seder run by the Beth El synagogue for the second night of Passover.
Like many, Dunn was overwhelmed by the idea of organizing a seder on her own.
“I have always looked forward to building my own Jewish home, and building up…my own Judaica and ritual items,” Dunn said. “I’m not there yet. I wasn’t really ready to host my own seder and it was almost too daunting of a task.”
Alongside the holiday pressures, Dunn said she and many of her peers are also struggling with a general sense of stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s a lot on their mind besides the seder,” she said. “We may have these aspirations of what we would want it to look like on our own for the first time, but a lot of us are so consumed and so drained that I think many of us are just welcoming Passover however it comes this year.”
Despite the challenge of physically preparing for the holiday, several people I interviewed said that it felt strangely appropriate to celebrate Passover during the pandemic. The story – of affliction, oppressed Jewish slaves, the 10 plagues sent against Egypt, and the escape to freedom – gives a sense of much-needed hope and resilience in uncertain times.
And for Dana Prottas, a Jewish professional and non-profit consultant, the Passover story came to life in another way: Baking her own matzah.
Matzah, the ritual unleavened bread, is said to have been made by the Jewish slaves when leaving Egypt. Rushing to get out before the Pharaoh tried to stop them, the slaves didn’t give their dough time to rise before baking it into flatbread. Now, matzah is essential for Passover – both as a ritual part of the seder, and as a replacement for leavened food.
So Prottas improvised when she realized she didn’t have enough commercially produced matzah for herself, her husband, and her two daughters Ayelet, 15, and Addie, 10. They created their own production line to prepare for the family’s Wednesday night Zoom seder.
Water was mixed with flour, kneaded into dough, rolled and poked with a fork on both sides to avoid any rise while baking, and then baked for two minutes on each side. The entire process for each piece of matzah was kept to under 18 minutes, as required by Jewish law.
“It was really stressful, but I think it turned out pretty good,” Ayelet said. The hardest part was the time limit. “If I sat down for 18 minutes to do my homework, it would go forever,” she said. But for making matzah, it was a “time crunch.”
The commercial matzah wasn’t missed, and making home-made matzah could become a part of future Passovers for the family.
“I hope that’s something that the girls will remember as they get older,” Prottas said, “of the time we had to make matzah because we were stuck at our house. It felt like the right thing to do.”
Other aspects of the Passover seder were adjusted as needed. The Prottas family didn’t have horseradish to use as the ritual maror, or bitter herb, for the seder, so they used hot sauce. Rather than hide a broken-off piece of matzah, known as the afikomen, at home for children to search for, some families screen-shared a Where’s Waldo photo during Zoom seders that hid an image of the afikomen for everyone to find.
Some seders were as normal as possible – just over Zoom. Others were designed from the ground up, meant to be screen-shared and followed via PowerPoint.
Several Zoom seders incorporated new COVID-19-related texts, like one responsive reading that included the lines: “As we wash our hands, we affirm our role in protecting ourselves and others. As we dip in salt water, we cry the tears of a planet besieged.”
Zoom seders were not an option for everyone, however, as traditionally observant Jews don’t use electricity or the internet for the first two days of Passover. This year, two days of internet isolation stretched into three, as the third day of Passover landed on Shabbat.
For some, that meant an opportunity to disconnect from the rest of the world and enjoy more time with family. For others, the holiday became even more complicated.
Rachel Dukes, 23, and her boyfriend Danny Kladnitsky, 24, found themselves torn about spending the first seder with Dukes’ parents, who are observant members of the Chabad movement. Without the option of a virtual seder, the only way to see them would be to physically visit – so, weighing the risks, Dukes and Kladnitsky decided to go.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to make,” Dukes said. Her parents are in their 60s, which places them at higher risk of COVID-19-related complications.
But Dukes and Kladnitsky decided it was safe to visit, because they had been quarantining for a few weeks with Kladnitsky’s family, and no one was showing any symptoms of the virus.
Overshadowing the seder was also worry for one of Dukes’ brothers in New York, who is currently intubated in a hospital due to COVID-19. Because of the emergency, and the need to stay in touch with doctors, Dukes’ observant family received rabbinic permission to use their phones during the holiday, marking another departure from the usual nature of Passover.
“It’s a lot of joy…that kind of unraveled itself and fell apart [this year],” Kladnitsky said. “It’s hard to fathom having a quote-unquote normal Pesach right now, or even in the near future.”
To really try and capture this year’s Passover experience, I also spoke with people after their seders to see how they felt. The difference was like night and day – at least in terms of stress.
“Before, I was feeling overwhelmed by everything going on…and nervousness that [the seders] wouldn’t be as meaningful as usual, or that I wouldn’t pull it off in the way I wanted,” Dunn said. “Always a good life lesson that it’s going to be okay – and there’s even the chance for something new and beautiful to come of it.”
Some Jews got more seder celebrations than they had ever bargained for. On Wednesday morning Dukes and Kladnitsky surprised Dukes’ family in Israel, who were already doing the first seder over Zoom, by hopping on the call.
“I thought that was so cool,” Dukes said. “We never would have been able to do that otherwise. It felt like we were with them in Israel.”
Then, late Wednesday afternoon, Kladnitsky had an impromptu Zoom seder with his family, and finally that evening the couple celebrated Passover with Dukes’ parents. On Thursday evening was another Zoom seder, this time run by Kladnitsky’s cousins.
Overall, the virtual Zoom seders had a mixed reception. The joy of seeing family and friends, and the freedom to join any seder, was combined with a hyper-awareness of missing in-person interaction.
“Did it feel like a seder? Well, it was kind of its own unique experience, its own thing,” Kladnitsky said.
Jason Bass, who celebrated Passover with his wife and two daughters by joining Temple Israel’s kids’ seder, said that, “my wife and I felt that things were ‘off’ compared to usual…it just felt like something was missing. I was glad that I was able to do something, but to me it didn’t have that special…ruach [soul].”
And the Prottas family were still unsure about what to think of their family Zoom seder. “It doesn’t feel like you’re actually at the same table,” Ayelet said.
Prottas found the virtual experience particularly strange, as it felt like she, her husband, and her daughters spent more time interacting with computers than with each other. The setup also left a lot to be desired, as the family sat around a table as if at a normal seder with three different devices on Zoom, instead of sitting around one device.
And the seder wasn’t quite tailored to the new medium of communication. “If you are doing things online…it should serve some purpose,” Prottas said.
“So the question is, when you’re online, does it allow you to do different things than you would not have usually done? And I think our seder this year, other than seeing other people and bringing them together…it was pretty much a traditional seder that we would have done in the past.”
But a larger question remains about how much of the virtual seder experience will carry over to the future.
“Do I think there is a place for Zoom seders going forward: yes,” Bass said. “Because we were forced to do it, it led us to teach people how to do it…that will enable us to see how easy it is for family to join in simchas [celebrations] no matter where they are.”
Kladnitsky agrees, and thinks that many Jews will choose to integrate virtual seders into future Passovers.
“Most people will do a large family seder for one night in person,” he said, “and either do a large in-person [seder] with friends, or maybe do a virtual one where you don’t have to organize this crazy big ordeal with 30 friends, and one person gets stuck having to host it.”
But others were firmly against the idea, like Addie, the youngest of the Prottas daughters.
“I would never, ever, ever do a virtual seder, ever, again,” she said.