A Passover Different from All Others. Again.

Finding silver linings and humor is a survival strategy, and it helps make stories memorable across generations.
March 26, 2021

Years ago, I tucked a damaged matzah-print apron into my fabric-scrap bag. My grandmother had given me another one, and I figured I’d save the damaged one for a future project. Last Passover, I thought about taking the fabric out to make a matzah-print mask. But I figured, what’s the point? I was sure I’d only be using it for one Passover.

But here we are again.

When we said “Next year off Zoom!” last year and believed it, I should have known better. One of the seder’s lessons is about balancing hopes versus expectations. The symbolic “Next year in Jerusalem!” at a seder’s end is a statement of optimism and realism. We can hope for the future, but we’ve said it so many times, it’s written down.

Ironically, given Passover’s themes of freedom and oppression, we’re still in the pandemic partially due to failure of some to understand actual freedom and oppression. The Haggadah doesn’t say, “We eat the bitter herb to symbolize the inconvenience of having to wear a mask so we don’t kill our neighbors.” So this year, let’s pour extra wine and say once again, louder for those in the back:

Let my people go to crowded bars is not a rallying cry for freedom.

So much has changed in a year. Between Purim and Passover 2020, we experienced a steep incline in new COVID-19 cases and deaths. We faced new uncertainty, first moved interactions online, and found humor in toilet paper shortages.

Still, last year’s Passover had unexpected sweetness. I wasn’t sure what to expect with a Zoom seder, as I edited my Haggadah, gave friends my charoset recipe and wrote about how Elijah wasn’t coming to Passover. But it was lovely. Along with local friends, I celebrated with my parents in New York plus old friends living miles away — including in Bangkok. We washed our hands for 20 seconds. We added new plagues, including loneliness, PPE shortages and getting the firstborn to take a nap. We asked four extra questions:

  • At all other seders, we gather and share food in person, but at this seder only via Zoom.
  • At all other seders, we find a few ways the story resonates in our lives, but this year, a recent hailstorm was the least of the similarities.
  • Before all other seders, we had to clean our whole house, but for this seder we only had to clean the parts of our house visible via Zoom.
  • At all other seders, we’re a little cramped in our reclining, but on this night we have the whole couch to recline on if we want.

Finding silver linings and humor is a survival strategy, and it helps make stories memorable across generations. That’s partly why so many of us mix a holiday about a serious topic with ten-plagues toys, go to comic lengths to hide an afikomen or build in other forms of whimsy.

Finding silver linings and humor is a survival strategy, and it helps make stories memorable across generations.

Speaking of humor, I could make a bunch of Passover puns here, but I’m not so shmura I’ll be afikomen up with any hidden ones you don’t know. Who knows one? I mean, I used to know a Pharaoh number of them, but I’ve forgotten Mosest of those. I don’t want to sound like a wine-er, but retreating to alcohol puns would be a glassed resort.

Matzah puns, however, always fall flat. Puns about tasting greens dipped in tears of our ancestors are an a-salt on the senses. Puns about Passover brands are Streit-up crumby. For Passover songs, oh my gadya’d; think could have chad a few by now, but nope. And the melodies? Man; niche tonal puns are hard — and open doors to other questions.

I’m feeling bitter about this, so I’ll stop and not make any maror. Instead, let’s think about this second year on Zoom, aka — one last dad joke — two Zoomim.

Humor’s just one way Passover reminds us of our resilience. Passover makes us practice being creative without things we usually rely on, like food ingredients. We put that creativity to use last year, and we’re doing it again now. 

But this year is different from all other years. And not just because Elijah’s age made him eligible for the vaccine early on — although I hope someone told him you’re not supposed to get super drunk a lot between doses.

As I edit my Haggadah, I’ve been thinking about how the parallels have changed during this horrible year. I’m also thinking about ways the story isn’t parallel to our own. In the Passover story, the plagues hit oppressors, although we’re taught to grieve them, too. And the Paschal marking on the doorposts — like a vaccine — keeps the Angel of Death away. But our actual pandemic strikes people who are more vulnerable, and it builds on existing oppressions and inequities. It’s important to get our vaccines to those who are most vulnerable first.

Our celebration situations are different this year, too. Many families are grieving lost loved ones they would have celebrated with. Zoom is also less novel now. I’ll probably have fewer guests than last year simply because people are tired of their screens after a year of meetings, online school, Zoom gatherings and Netflix. Not everyone’s celebrating online or with just their own household. With more people vaccinated and cautious CDC advice, some are opting for in-person seders. Some could already do that easily with their households, if they don’t live alone.

I’ve been vaccinated, due to volunteering in a mass vaccination site in Seattle. But I’m opting for online, and not just because I want to see far-away friends (and maaaaybe haven’t finished cleaning). Excluding people by moving things in-person feels counter to the idea of “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” With a Zoom seder, I don’t have the limitations of how many people I can fit in my small apartment. I don’t want to leave out someone who was looking forward to Passover.

Also, it isn’t random who gets left out by in-person seders. As with isolation inequity throughout the pandemic, single people who live alone are more likely not to get invited to something in-person. If the CDC recommends vaccinated people invite over just one household, it’s understandable to invite over a couple or another household group.

This boost of solidarity and social time matters, since we haven’t made it to the other side. Numbers are getting worse in some places. Much of the world is without vaccine doses, for which the United States bears some responsibility. Brazil is in crisis.

With multiple vaccines that are safe and highly effective, we can see a hopeful path ahead. But it comes with caveats about new strains and needing enough of the population vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

So the other day, I got out my fabric-scrap bag. I found the damaged apron, and I made a three-layer matzah-print mask. I wore it shopping for Passover ingredients, where a few other Jews doing the same complimented it, and I got to enjoy conversations with strangers — another small delight I don’t take for granted anymore.

I’m hoping the end is in sight, locally and globally. I want to host in person next year and feed my friends at home, which I love. Still, I’m more prepared now for unexpected turns. I hope I’ll never need this adorable mask again, but — along with my other resilience-tools for safety and humor — I’m glad it’ll be here if I do.

Deborah (Debs) Gardner is a public health professional, writer and semi-snarky Jew living in Seattle, WA. Our “pundemic correspondent,” she is a multi-time winner of Pundamonium Seattle, a local pun slam.

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