Adapting a sacred ceremony to the coronavirus

Maybe some day someone will chronicle the countless ways in which our lives have changed since this crisis started. But for now, we’ll leave it to Sharyn Gelb Diamond of Plano, Texas, to explain how she and her family adapted a sacred holiday to the crisis.

“Why is this night different from all other nights?” is one of the questions we read, for the Passover we just celebrated in mid-April, from the Haggadah, the text we recite at every Passover Seder. Well… this night was definitely different than any other Seders I’ve had in my entire 73 years of life!

You see, due to coronavirus distancing, we, and probably millions of people all over the world, did a “virtual Seder” over the internet with friends and family rather than in person. Our table was only set for the two of us in our household, rather than the usual 10 or 12 guests we have.

The online service Zoom helps to bring a family together at Passover this year.

Passover is a very special Jewish holiday, and one of my favorites, when Jews all over the world celebrate the exodus from slavery in Egypt. It is commemorated by holding a meal usually the first two nights of the holiday, a Seder, which literally means “order.” We follow the Haggadah, a book containing the instructions on conducting the Seder with prayers and the story of the exodus.

A Seder plate on the table shows the foods that help tell the story, including all of these:

  • A roasted egg (baytsah) symbolic of spring when Passover is held and of renewal;
  • Bitter herbs (Maror), usually horseradish, used to show the harshness of being a slave;
  • Roasted lamb shank bone (zeroa) which symbolizes the sacrifice made by the Israelites the night they fled into the wilderness;
  • A green vegetable like parsley (karpas), used for dipping into salt water to represent the tears shed as slaves;
  • A mixture of chopped apples, nuts, and wine (haroset) to represent the mortar that slaves used to build the pyramids.

But the most important item on the Seder table is matzo, unleavened bread that the Israelites made in the rush to leave Egypt.

The Seder table.

The main entrée is up to the family hosting the Seder but my family traditionally serves chicken matzo ball soup, chopped liver, roast or chicken, and accompaniments. No leavened bread is eaten during the holiday, which commemorates the Israelites not having time to bake it on their exodus from Egypt.

A Seder table.

And so, this year, the tradition continued, albeit from a distance. Adapting to new ways during a crisis can be challenging, but at the same time, rewarding. What I thought would be an impersonal chat on the computer turned out to be both beautiful and meaningful.

A surprisingly serene atmosphere took over as we began our service by lighting the candles with our prayer, which in Hebrew goes like this: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech haolam asher kidshanu bimitzvosav vitzibanu lihadlik ner shel yom tov.

A Seder from a few years ago — Sharyn, her daughter Kim, and two granddaughters.

The leader of the Seder was my husband, but we all took turns reading from the Haggadah, including my daughter and her family of five who live just a few blocks away. So near and yet so far!

It is traditional at the end of the Seder to say, “Next year in Jerusalem,” but we added, “Next year in person!” I whispered in my heart, “From my mouth to God’s ears.”

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