Three weeks from tonight, April 8, Jews will gather for the seminal holiday ritual of their religion. Or will they? While for many of today’s chosen people the seder remains a religious experience, for many others it is a secular reaffirmation of their primal heritage. More Jews gather to attend a seder than congregate for any other religious observance. It is so powerful a symbol that even in Auschwitz Jews assembled to observe the Passover seder.
Religious practice—the comforting rituals that have bound parishioners of all faiths to their chosen deity—has been traumatized by the coronavirus. Decades-, centuries-, even millennia-old protocols have been temporarily shelved as clerical and lay leaders improvise alterations to communal customs and religious ceremonies (https://nyti.ms/2vqXY5Y).
Barring a miracle as equivalent as the series of wonders that preceded the Exodus from Egypt, Jews the world over will celebrate the Passover seder in relative solitude, likely not surrounded by the usual numbers of family and friends for fear of viral transmission, unless they defy government and health authorities to gather in numbers larger than ten.
(As a point of interest and information, the Torah made provisions for the inability of celebrants to attend a seder at the appointed time. Passover could be observed a month later. Of course, there is no surety the pandemic would be tamed by May 7.)
My earliest memories of a seder are from my pre-bar mitzvah days. In our two floor row house in Brooklyn my parents would convert the ground floor into an open space with a U-shaped dining table that would seat as many as 40 participants depending on my father’s success in adding guests—second or third cousins, friends from Israel or from the “old country”—to the 18 members of our close relatives, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Even when the seder moved upstairs to our living room after my bar mitzvah and shrank to a more manageable 25, the seder was a raucous affair. Reading from the Maxwell House haggadah, my father and his brother Willy would drone on in a trope that befuddled my brother, sister and me and anyone else who tried to follow along in Hebrew (no English to be heard except for the chattering among my mother and her three sisters which prompted my father’s repeated appeals for them to be quiet).
Gilda and I took over seder chores about 30 years ago. By then family togetherness had dissolved. My sister Lee moved to Los Angeles 47 years ago. Her family stays in L.A. for Passover. My brother Bernie’s family kept coming north from Maryland until about 10 years ago.
For more than 3,000 years Jews—religious and sectarian—have gathered from near and far for a seder meal, a symbol of congealed peoplehood.
Our children and grandchildren have joined us from Massachusetts and Nebraska. But will they this year? Is traveling hundreds of miles by car or plane an essential trip during a pandemic? I just don’t know.