What Passover During The Pandemic Means To Me
I was living in Amsterdam, close to the town where I grew up with my Dutch father and American mother. I’d finished dinner at an Italian restaurant with my friend Dan, a therapist in training. Before we left, he wanted to guess what hot topics we’d hear about at our respective Seders. “What theme can our slavery be a metaphor for this time?” Dan asked, mocking the earnestness both our families would inevitably employ, bringing in segments from current events, the world news… “And the Holocaust,” I added. “Never forget,” he said. Dan rolled his eyes and smiled.
In my early 20s, a complicated relationship with Passover was a variation on my feelings as a kid. In childhood, it’s painful to sit still until past your bedtime before you get to eat a dinner that features fish from a jar. “Pesach is wonderful,” my mother would say, as I wondered whether I’d ever match her experience of the holiday. What was I missing?
I worked in journalism. Helping her get rid of the last boxes of pasta, I looked for the lead. But our version of readying ourselves or “Spring cleaning” didn’t strike me as meaningful either, not in a deeply felt way.
The sarcasm at our table in Amsterdam that night echoed a lifelong focus on trauma. Where our secular friends had the privilege of holding the Holocaust lightly (“Are reparations still necessary?”, “Why is Israel so controlling?”), we didn’t. Every time I set foot into our congregation, I found myself weighed down by the heaviness: in melodies, faces, and a lingering fear of the Other. I was often reminded, “That family we know survived the camp with so-and-so”. Especially in adolescence, a desire becomes tangible for opportunities to detach from the remembering long enough to figure out this living thing.
I moved to San Francisco nine years ago. I was in my mid-20s, pursuing a professional opportunity. Naturally, I struggled with the separation of my own making. As my family prepared to gather for Atonement Day, I located a service with space for me to attend on my own and witness one American approach to the annual sermon. “We dedicate this time to what we’ve done wrong this year,” the rabbi began. “How about we spend a moment thinking of something we’ve done right?” My eyes widened. After decades stuck in a narrative of victimhood and oppression, he flipped the script.
By Spring, my inbox had filled up with invitations to Seders of every kind. They centered on immigration, global warming, music, fine dining, LGBTQ rights… it was hard to pick one. Here were potent metaphors, alright. But also, options. Who knew Judaism could be engaged in so many contemporary ways?
My traditional parents were not as taken by my evolving, New World, guitars-playing-dancing-
While my integration into local culture continued, I joined a yoga studio. One of my teachers had started quoting Victor Frankl at the end of class. Of course, once you have an ocean between you and your inheritance, history will make detours in order to reach even the farthest of destinations. But my takeaway from Frankl, that we can and must make meaning of our lives, remained with me long after I’d rolled up my mat and returned home.
This year’s Seder is approaching. It will be an online affair, gathering on a screen with many of the faces that surrounded me throughout my youth and the teenage years
They will include levity that I’m looking forward to: a family friend piling sufficient layers of horseradish onto his plate to make him laugh and cry, boisterous verses of songs after the meal that seem like they’ll never end.
My Jewish upbringing encouraged reflection and remembrance. A move to California added lightheartedness–along with the belief that genuine joy honors the memory of my ancestors–and specificity to the mix. I learned to discover twists that render my holidays personal to me. “Freedom from bondage” is the most malleable. Some years, the prophet Elijah speaks to me–in phases when I’m holding questions that are unanswerable. Even as a child, the mystical figure spoke to me. I marveled at a surface of wine in the communal cup that did look lower after his unseen visit.
For this Seder, we won’t need a metaphor. The virus is not symbolic. Our reality is full of chaos unimagined, global loss and displacement. And when this crisis finally ends, we’ll collectively retell the stories about how we ourselves came out of this purgatory.
Still, I’ve started looking for the metaphor that carries resonance for me today. I’m guessing it’s next year in Jerusalem. Next year, and perhaps far before, may we rejoice in the place we can only imagine today.
April 28, 2020