“Thank you for taking part in this insane experiment.”
It was with that nervous, half-joking comment that Rose Blau Rowland, my mother, welcomed our friends and family to our Cortlandt Manor home on a clear, cool April evening – the first night of Passover.
The wooden dining room table, well-made but scratched and chipped by restless fingers over the years, had been set with a bright orange linen tablecloth. A collection of family heirlooms from both sides of my family was arranged on top of it. The silver-lined, aquamarine-and-white dishes were my late grandma Jenny Blau’s wedding china. The gold-plated flatware was a gift from my grandmother, Beatrice Rowland, whom I call Grandbea. The wax-stained brass holiday candlesticks, already lit and blessed, dated back at least to Grandma Blau’s Russian parents.
In many ways, this was a typical festive Passover Seder for the Rowland family. But something was different. This year, there were only four chairs and four people in the room, when most years saw at least eight of both. And at the other end of the room, there was a computer, a speaker, and more people than had come to any Seder I had ever attended before. Welcome to the Rowland family Seder in the year of the coronavirus.
There’s a popular saying that many people claim explains almost every major Jewish holiday. No one knows who invented it anymore, but one popular theory is that it goes back to Alan King, the renowned comedian. Some even joke that it actually explains all of Jewish history: They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!
In less than ten words, that says a lot about how the Jewish mind works. It speaks to our storied history, our long cultural memory of persecution, the importance of food, even our ability to face the worst of times with hope born from a belief in the arc of the moral universe. All of this can be found in those words. But it does leave out one important element. So, allow me to present a perhaps more accurate modification: “They tried to kill us, we survived. Let’s get together and eat.”
That sense of togetherness was threatened this year as never before in my lifetime.
The Passover Seder is one of the oldest traditions in Judaism, It dates back to right after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, which made the central rituals of Passover practiced before that time, such as the Paschal Lamb Sacrifice, impossible to perform. In that time, elements have been added and perhaps even lost, but the basic form of the ritual, thought to be inspired by Greco-Roman symposiums in form, has stayed consistent.
Seder is the Ancient Hebrew word for “order,” referring to the regimen of rituals, prayers and historical recitations that surround the central feast. A full traditional Seder can take hours before you even reach the main course, but many break the ritual down to the essentials: the stories, the readings, the blessings and traditional songs, usually “Dayenu,” which translates to “It Would Have Been Enough” and “Chad Gadya,” or “One Little Goat”
But most importantly, it is a time of thanksgiving and community. As the Haggadah, the prayer book of the Seder, traditionally proclaims:
“Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are needy share the Passover meal.”
People invite extended family, congregants and those who have no Seder to go to into their homes at these times. To miss Passover makes you feel like you are not part of a wider community, with shared stories, hardships, and triumphs. At Passover, we share our first formative story: the story of our slavery in Egypt, the battle for our redemption and the long journey to the Promised Land.
“I was depressed that I wasn’t going to be able to do anything for Passover,” my aunt, Hannah Blau, said.
Hannah, who until recently used to work as a receptionist in a domestic abuse shelter, lives in a retirement community in Atlanta, Georgia, which has been completely locked down because of the coronavirus. She is now legally barred from going outside the gates of the apartment complex. She was afraid that this would be a lonely Passover compared to her usual Seders with her local congregation – until her sister invited her to our Seder.
There were 13 virtual guests. The physical hosts of the evening and masters of ceremonies were my mother, Rose; my father, Seth Gabriel Rowland; my younger brother, Itzak; and I.
On my mother’s side of the family, we had my aunt Hannah Blau, my uncle Nathan Blau, and his wife, Anna, all from Atlanta. Nathan and Hannah are my mother’s older siblings by more than a decade. Hannah had joined our Seder table in the past – during the four years she lived with us – but not since she moved back to Georgia in 2017. Nathan and Anna had never been to one of our Seders. From my father’s side of the family, we had my aunt Ariel, a regular guest at our Seders.
The rest of the guest list was filled out by family friends. Kathy Riter, Rose’s friend, and her son, Ian Bonnell, my closest friend, showed off Kathy’s famous gefilte fish, a staple of our Seder table. But this year, it was reserved only for them. Caron Shapiro, another friend of Rose, kept trying to get her son Ben, Itzak’s friend, to join in on the call in the living room without success. She had come to a few of our holiday meals over the years but was not a regular guest.
Amy and Marty Melman had been good friends of the whole Rowland family since they welcomed us to their synagogue soon after we moved out of New York City. We were happy to invite them to our Seder instead of going to theirs for once, even if the situation was odd. Vadim Pevzner has been a friend of Seth since their time at Dartmouth College. Vadim and his wife, Olga, have been to a couple of Rowland Seders despite not being particularly observant. I generally think of Vadim and Olga as my surrogate aunt and uncle and their young daughters, Nicole and Victoria, as my cousins.
The event itself was full of technical difficulties, as expected with 16 people using seven different smartphones, webcams, desktops, and laptops. Aunt Hannah used a phone with no camera, though she could see us. Aunt Ariel had no camera either, as she was used to using Zoom. We were using a paid program called GoToMeeting, which we had found more reliable in our home consulting business. Everyone, including the four hosts instinctively shouted into their speakers, as if we thought we had to project our voices physically. No one could sing in tune or on time.
But even as I grimaced at the unintelligible jabber of software overloaded by too many simultaneous voices, the ceremony did not feel altogether unfamiliar. Honestly, group-singing sessions have always been train wrecks at our Seders, even when we are all in the same room.
Traditional songs like “Dayenu” and “Chad Gadya” were almost meant to be sung by a cacophony of voices enlivened by the ceremonial wine and half-starved from the long wait for the meal. The message of thanks from “Dayenu,” in which we recount how each and every miracle of the Exodus alone would have been enough, feels more sincere when we stumble over verses, as if G-d has done so many miracles we can’t even count them.
And “Chad Gadya” – an allegory for the ultimate victory of righteousness over all the empires and nations that have tried to wipe us out and that starts with a cat eating a baby goat – is just too much fun to sing correctly.
But most of all, the very fact that we had had a Seder at all this year proved one thing. Perhaps my mother put it best.
“If anyone knows how to improvise, it’s Jews,” Rose said into the computer screen. “We improvised an entire history.”
After we went through the pre-meal blessings, we kept the meeting going for as long as we could while we all ate our separate meals. Anna and Nathan couldn’t get a computer to work in their dining room, so they were gone from the conversation while eating. My family ate white beans, matzah ball soup, and roasted Brussels sprouts. A much smaller meal than usual, but still tasty.
And as always, we ended the Seder with the eternal line, made more meaningful by our current situation:
“Next year in Jerusalem!”