Passover Downsized: Coronavirus Throws a Matza Wrench Into Jewish Holiday Tradition

With Israel’s Health Ministry already recommending that the Passover seder be kept to the nuclear family, this year aunts, uncles, cousins – and even kibbutz members – will have to do their own thing at home due to coronavirus

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A woman walks past the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, shuttered over the coronavirus outbreak, March 30, 2020.
A woman walks past the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, shuttered over the coronavirus outbreak, March 30, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

In less than three weeks, Jews around the world will open their Passover seder with the following question: “How is this night different from all other nights?”

This year – perhaps nowhere so much as in Israel – Jews will also surely note, at least in their hearts, how different this seder is from all others.

For many, it will be a much smaller and intimate affair. Indeed, according to the latest government directives aimed at fighting the coronavirus, gatherings of more than 10 people are strictly forbidden. With Israelis known for their impressive birth rates, that means the number of aunts, uncles and cousins sitting around the table will have to be limited. For that reason, the Health Ministry has already advised that the ceremony include only the nuclear family.

Since elderly folks have been urged to be especially vigilant about social distancing, for many families, this will also be the first seder without any grandparents – the first time, for many children, that it won’t be their grandfather leading the Haggadah readings or hiding the afikoman, the piece of matza hidden during the seder and eaten at the end of the meal.

In a country where people are known to boast about the number of guests at their seder, often inflating the figures, the contrast with previous years could not be more glaring, notes Rabbi Ronen Lubitch, the president of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, a progressive Orthodox movement.

“Every year, it’s almost like a competition here in Israel over who has the biggest seder,” he says. “If I believed what people told me and added up all the numbers, I might easily conclude there were at least 20 million people living in this country.” (Israel’s Jewish population is about 6.5 million.)

Although the vast majority of Israel’s roughly 260 kibbutzim have been privatized in recent decades, the communal seder is still a highlight of the year and guaranteed to fill the generally underused central dining hall.

Until now, that is. This week, for the first time in the more than 100-year history of the kibbutz movement, this mega-event has been canceled.

And perhaps nowhere was the news more crushing than on Na’an, a kibbutz in central Israel that claims to host the largest seder in the country, with somewhere between 1,200 and 1,300 participants each year.

A mass Passover celebration at Kibbutz Na'an near Rehovot.
A mass Passover celebration at Kibbutz Na'an near Rehovot.Credit: Courtesy of Raaya Ben-Avraham

“I just can’t believe it won’t be happening,” says Raaya Ben-Avraham, 45, who has been organizing the event for 14 years and had to notify members of the cancellation a few days ago. “Our kibbutz will be celebrating its 90th birthday in October, and this is the first time we’ve ever canceled a seder. It’s so bizarre.”

At Na’an, like on other kibbutzim around Israel, the seder ceremony typically includes song-and-dance acts and other performances by members. “Everybody on our kibbutz has a role to play – it’s something unreal to witness,” Ben-Avraham says.

To help members feel less alienated this year, the kibbutz plans to distribute CDs of previously recorded seder nights so that the members can sing and dance along to the familiar tunes while they hold the seder in their homes.

At nearby Givat Brenner, Israel’s largest kibbutz, the painful yet inevitable decision to cancel the event was taken a week ago. “We were expecting 400 people this year,” says Chagit Portnoy, who has helped organize the kibbutz-wide seder for 35 years, “and it’s something I love so much, but unfortunately it’s not going to happen this year. It’s a shame, but people definitely understand.” This will be the first time in Givat Brenner’s 92-year history that the annual event has been called off.

Big communal seders are also popular outside the kibbutzim. Naomi Efrat, a Reform rabbi and the spiritual leader of the Kehilat Halev synagogue in Tel Aviv, has been running a congregational seder for about 150 people for the past three years.

“This year, it’s obviously out of the question and such a shame,” she says. “It was among the first things I initiated when I took over this congregation.” To give her congregants a big seder feel this year, she is encouraging them to shoot videos of themselves reciting different parts of the Hagaddah and share them during the seder.

Preparations for a mass Passover celebration at Kibbutz Na'an near Rehovot.
Preparations for a mass Passover celebration at Kibbutz Na'an.Credit: Courtesy of Raaya Ben-Avraham

Separating the family

But most Israelis still prefer the company of their extended family at this time of year. As Lubitch notes, “Nowhere is the Israeli ethos of family more on display than on the night of the seder.”

Hava Leider, an academic administrator at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, says that last year the seder she regularly organizes with her older sister was attended by 47 members of their extended family. “My sister and I traditionally prepare all the main dishes, and the guests bring the sides and appetizers,” says Leider, 62, who lives in the southern city of Be’er Sheva, where the university is based.

For this year’s seder, they were planning on something more modest, only about 20 guests – just the two sisters, their husbands, children, children’s spouses and grandchildren. “We haven’t yet figured out how we’re going to handle the new situation, but it seems that we’re going to have to split up the family,” she laments. “It’s very sad, but I have a feeling that the older generation will have to hold their own separate seder this year.”

Normally, Judy Schloss Lampert, a homemaker from the Tel Aviv suburb Ra’anana, doesn’t host seders with that many guests, but she does make a point of inviting nonrelatives who might not have anywhere else to go. This year, she concedes, that could be a problem.

“We always like having a couple of outside guests,” says Schloss Lampert, 53, a mother of five originally from California. “This year, it was supposed to be my niece from abroad, who’s here in Israel this year, along with her boyfriend. I feel bad, but I think because of all the new restrictions on bringing outsiders into the home we’re going to have to say no.”

For Ruth Leah Kahan, a freelance editor also from Ra’anana, this will be the first seder she is hosting without her four children. “We have two sons now in the United States who were planning to come, and I’m going to be heartbroken if they don’t, but I’m pretty sure they won’t be able to because neither of them can afford to spend two weeks in quarantine here,” she says. (All Israelis landing in the country are now required to self-isolate for 14 days.)

To fill up the table in their absence, says Kahan, 55, she considered inviting family members who were planning to spend Passover in the United States and had to cancel, “but that probably isn’t going to happen either because we have to keep things small this year.” Her father, who lives nearby, and her mother-in-law, who lives in Jerusalem, typically join her and her family for the seder. This year, she says, “everything is up in the air.”

“We’re going to leave it up to my father,” Kahan says. “If he wants to come, and I suspect he will, that will be fine with us. I don’t think it’s a huge risk. With my mother-in-law, we still don’t know what’s happening.”

For some Israelis, this seder will be different because it will be the first time they’re running it on their own in their own homes. “There are many people in this country who aren’t used to that,” Lubitch notes. “They typically spend the holiday at a hotel or go abroad. Many of them simply lock up their homes before Passover so that they don’t have to do a special cleaning and go away. So this is going to be a very big change for them.”

Arnie Draiman, a Jerusalem-based donor consultant, has for the past eight years organized all-inclusive Passover getaways at a Dead Sea hotel that are specially designed for English-speakers. One perk is that he gets to spend the holiday there with his family free of charge. Last week, he was notified that the hotel had been shut down until further notice.

“We get about 650 people each year – about half to a third of them English-speakers based in Israel,” he says. “We were already filled up a month ago.”

Summing up how the change in plans will affect him and his family, Draiman, 63, says: “This is the first time in nine years that we will have to take our Passover dishes from the storage room and actually make Passover on our own.” He hasn’t finalized his plans for seder night yet but says he hopes to conduct the ceremony with another smallish family. “And after all these years, I think I still remember how to run a seder,” he says.

A mass Passover celebration at Kibbutz Na'an near Rehovot.
Another view of a typical Passover at Kibbutz Na'an.Credit: Courtesy of Raaya Ben-Avraham

Planning a corona seder

Holding a seder during the age of corona presents not only challenges but also opportunities, Lubitch says.

“It’s really back to basics, like the whole corona situation itself,” he says. “Usually, during the seder, we’re very preoccupied with all the guests, many times distant relatives, and trying to impress them. This time, there are none of these distractions, and this provides a rare opportunity for parents and children to actually focus on one another.”

Chaya Rowan-Baker, a Conservative rabbi and the spiritual leader of Congregation Ramot Zion in Jerusalem, also believes there is lemonade to be made out of the lemons seder organizers have been handed this year.

“Let’s remember that the central element of this holiday is sitting around and telling our children our story,” she says. “But all too often, we get so caught up with all the food and all the company that this part of it sometimes get lost. So this year’s seder really provides an opportunity to return to what this is really all about, and I, for one, am looking forward to a different seder, a very different seder from all others.”

Considering that the main theme of the holiday is freedom, the coronavirus – and the restrictions it has imposed on daily life – provides a timely topic for discussion, Rowan-Baker adds. “Now that we know what it’s like to be confined to our homes, it’s an opportunity to talk about what are the things we value most about our freedom,” she says.

It’s not the only theme in the Hagaddah that’s sure to resonate this year. “In the Haggadah, we tell the story of the 10 plagues inflicted by God on the Egyptians to force them to free the Israelites,” notes Rabbi David Stav, the chairman of Tzohar, an organization of Modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel. “One of those plagues was pestilence, which was also a dangerous epidemic. So I believe the seder this year will present an opportunity for some very relevant discussion about the meaning of plagues.”

In many Israeli households, shopping and dividing up the work for seder night is done weeks in advance. With so much uncertainty about what restrictions will be in force by then, planning this year is particularly challenging.

“I have my standard Passover shopping list, but this year I’m not sure how many eggs and chocolate chips to buy because I still don’t know how many of us there will be,” Kahan says. “I guess it’s easier to just buy more because we can always eat it later, though I do hope that as many people as possible come because that’s what makes the holiday so special.”

Leider, the academic administrator in Be’er Sheva, is already such a pro that she begins her cooking weeks in advance. This year it looks like she’s going to be stuck with lots of extra gefilte fish.

“I prepared it a few weeks ago when I though we were going to have about 20 guests,” she says. “I guess we’ll be eating lots of leftover gefilte fish this year.”

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