Esther Greenberg's Passover seder is rooted in centuries-old tradition, but it's a modern medical breakthrough that's bringing together her vaccinated, unmasked family for this weekend's holiday meal after being long separated by COVID-19.
"Hugging is definitely on the menu," said Greenberg, 74, a grandmother who like her husband Bob, 76, a retired pharmacist, was fully vaccinated against the air-borne virus, which has killed more than 543,000 people in the United States.
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With more than 42 percent of all American seniors already fully inoculated against COVID-19, vaccinated Jewish grandparents forced to hold seders on Zoom last Passover are emerging to embrace loved ones around the seder table during the weeklong celebration that begins on Saturday. Grandparents scrambled to arrange Passover get-togethers once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its guarded blessing for limited in-person holiday gatherings this month.
"I can't wait to hug and kiss everybody I haven't been able to since last year," said Greenberg, a retired office manager in the Long Island, New York suburb of Woodbury.
"We're going to actually be seeing the family - we're not going to be doing it on Zoom. To me, that's worth everything," said Greenberg, who last year under the online tutelage of her then 10-year-old grandson organized a family seder on Zoom.
Passover is the first major holiday for Americans to come together since the CDC this month advised that vaccinated people can hold small, unmasked gatherings with unvaccinated people from a single household. It marks a hopeful sign of near normalcy after the past year. With Easter a week away and the summer holidays on the horizon, it will also be a test of whether people can act responsibly since gatherings still pose some risks.
Passover is a Jewish spring holiday to commemorate the biblical story of the exodus of Hebrews from Egyptian slavery, in which God instructed Jews to mark their doors so the Angel of Death would "pass over" them. It is celebrated by at least one seder that is typically led by a family matriarch or patriarch, who gathers family and friends around the seder table to enjoy a feast.
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After a Zoom seder last year, Fay Ellis will join on Saturday with vaccinated family around the seder table at her niece's home in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.
"Last year we revised the traditional seder ending, 'Next year in Jerusalem' to say 'Next year around the same table.' Now that wish will come true," said Ellis, 64, editor of a medical magazine.
She will be driving from her Maplewood, New Jersey, home with her 96-year-old mother, a former Hebrew school teacher who has limited Internet skills and wasn't able to log onto the family's online seder last year because her independent senior living apartment was on lockdown.
"That first bite of matza will elicit a few tears," Ellis said.
"Being able to gather our immediate family together around the same table for the first time in a year will make this seder more emotionally resonant than ever," she said.
Even with vaccinations accelerating coast to coast, some remain wary of maskless indoor gatherings of inoculated people at a time when the United States continues to log more than 56,000 new infections on average each day.
"It's not a zero risk scenario - remember there is a small possibility that they can be transmitting the virus to other people," said UCLA epidemiologist Anne Rimoin, who said her family members - including those vaccinated - in the Los Angeles area will be holding a Zoom seder for a second year in a row.
"Holidays are about showing love and care toward your family, and the best thing you can do for your family is keep them safe," Rimoin said. "This is not something to be taken lightly."
In Phoenix, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, whose work includes aiding asylum seekers at the Mexican border, said he is confident that vaccinations for himself, his wife and his elderly parents mean they can hold a safe, small in-person seder but without the usual crowd they invite from Valley Beit Midrash, his Phoenix not-for-profit organization.
On a holiday that recounts tales of God sending down plagues to try to free Jews from slavery, Yanklowitz said the pandemic can serve as a teaching tool to raise awareness and compassion for the victims of "modern plagues - COVID, poverty, homelessness, immigrant desperation, racial injustice."
Back in New York, Greenberg said COVID-19 has sharpened her perspective on life's priorities.
"This is the most important thing in my life: seeing my family together," Greenberg said, her booming voice suddenly growing quieter in anticipation of the holiday ahead.
"We're all eating at the same table and everyone is telling me how delicious the matza ball soup is. I didn't have that last year. I didn't have any of that."