Passover isn't just a holiday with a meal. The meal is the holiday. It's a ritual people make around the table. They gather to eat the same foods, tell the same stories, generation after generation.
"It's a moment of transmitting history, but also transmitting identity. Which is why it's so important to be with family," explains Rabbi Marisa James, director of social justice programming at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York.
People tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, but they also perform it — with food, ritual, debate and song — to make everyone around the table feel like they have personally come out of slavery themselves. But this year, because of coronavirus stay-at-home orders, people have to find new ways to connect to old traditions.
Mara Gross set up a video cooking date with her mother, Barbara. Gross connected from her kitchen in Portland, Ore., to her mother's in Northern California, to figure out how to get her matzo balls as light and fluffy as her mom's. Via Zoom, they discuss how to deal with the eggs (don't separate, but "beat the hell out it"), how to add the matzo meal (very gradually), and how to shape them (dipping hands in ice water to keep the mixture from sticking).
Gross and her partner and daughter usually make the trip to her childhood home for a big family Seder, and she was really looking forward to learning these skills in person. Instead, they'll have a video conference Seder, with cousins around the country.
"We're going to get to combine and be with — quote unquote — family that we don't always get to celebrate with. And that's something that's pretty special," Gross says. But — "still not the same."
Especially this year when her mother just entered hospice.
"It's hard not to get to be with family," Gross acknowledges, with a deep breath. "It's hard not to be able to support my parents in what's a hard time for them. And it's hard not to get to be together for celebrations. We only have so many of those. And we don't get that this year."
People are feeling loss all around the world. Of family, of health, of certainty. And Rabbi Marisa James says the story of Passover, while it's about freedom, is also about hard times. And things you can't control.
"We're looking at these Israelites, and saying well they're also leaving behind a time that is terrible, they're going through a time that is terrifying, and they have absolutely no idea what's gonna be on the other side," James says.
But they keep moving. The internet is currently filled with talmudic-level debate about virtual Seders. There are sites to connect participants that are hosting or in need of a virtual Seder, supplements and suggestions for virtual seders, memes about plagues and ritual handwashing, rabbinic discussions about whether orthodox practice allows technology at all. Seder tables will look different this year. Seder plates will too. And Rabbi James says that's fine. Like all rituals, Passover isn't about stuff. It's about story.
"What are the things that help you express tears," James asks. "What are the things that help you express building? What are the things that help you express renewal and joy? Those are the things on the Seder plate. You can take anything that is in your house, anything that in your yard, that symbolizes those things, and tell a story. And that's a Seder. And that's a real Seder."
James says we don't know where in the story we are right now. And maybe the bitter greens on the Seder plate will be dandelions from the backyard. Whatever shape it takes, James says, people can make their Passover holy. Make the meaning they need. They can pick up their selves, and their souls, and move through the sea — this time of uncertainty — toward whatever's next.