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‘It felt more meaningful, more symbolic:’ Readers share their seder stories

Peggy Walt's seder in Nova Scotia featured name tags for each person, even if they couldn't quite sit in their assigned seat.

Peggy Walt’s seder in Nova Scotia featured name tags for each person, even if they couldn’t quite sit in their assigned seat. Image by Peggy Walt

We knew these seder nights would be different from all others. Turned out some of those differences were positive.

My own extended family seemed to talk over each other less via Zoom than we do in person, and we relaxed our recitation of the hagaddah to make room for more personal interpretations, which may also have been more meaningful. On the second night, I Zoomed with friends I would never otherwise share Pesach with — that was cool.

Dozens of readers shared similar stories of surprising benefits to this Passover-in-a-pandemic, writing in from a range of places including South Africa, Nova Scotia, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Bay Harbor Islands, Fla., and Burbank, Calif. Many were thrilled to be able to experience the seder with loved ones in far-flung countries — and to be able to wear sweatpants.

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“A really big surprise was that one of the participants was actually somebody I went to high school with who lives in Pennsylvania,” said Ella Leitner, 47, who with her 80-something in-laws Zoomed into the congregational seder of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue. “It was nice to see him and his family pop up on my screen. It made us feel that the world is actually much closer than we think.”

There were laments, too — for favorite foods and, as 72-year-old Martha Levy of upstate New York put it, “the camaraderie in the kitchen when cleaning up.” But several people said they would take lessons from this year and bring them back to the table next year — likely via Zoom.

“Honestly, I think we should all wear sweatpants to seder,” said Jon Savitt, 28. “I hope that in the future, whether hosting Passover Seder or watching the NBA finals, we embrace getting in touch with the ones we truly care about — if you can get past the initial technical difficulties, it’s really not so bad.”

Below are more excerpts, lightly edited for length and clarity. Add your story in the comments.

The Scherlis Family Seder 1936; Deanne Comer's grandparents, Jacob  and Ethel (center), who immigrated from Kiev, Russia, and parents, David and Eleanor (lower right corner).

The Scherlis Family Seder 1936; Deanne Comer’s grandparents, Jacob and Ethel (center), who immigrated from Kiev, Russia, and parents, David and Eleanor (lower right corner). Image by Deanne Comer

‘My late husband would have been so proud’
As I lit the Yom Tov candles, I displayed to all the family Seder photo taken in 1936 — before I was born — showing my Russian-born grandparents, my parents, five aunts and uncles, and 13 first cousins. The candlesticks in the center of that table, were now on my Passover table. Although there was only one place setting, for me only, I truly felt the presence of all those who came before me and was comforted that I could, because of our immediate family (Zoom) gathering, share my personal observations more readily.

My two children and their families were together for the first time in years as they live in two different cities. So for me, personally — a widow, living alone, and the one matriarch present — the experience gave me a great sense of “L’Dor V’Dor!” Observing my immediate family ( including three adult grandchildren) sharing this experience was extremely comforting. My late husband would have been so proud!
Deanne Scherlis Comer, Elkins Park, Penn.

Remembering our blessings
Instead of the 10 plagues, we did the 10 blessings. We normally diminish our cups because we feel the pain of the Egyptians who suffered, but this year we aren’t diminished by sharing the pain of others, so with each blessing — which I asked each person to repeat after me in English, just like in the 10 plagues — we added some wine to our cups.

The blessings were: We are healthy. We are volunteering. We are reaching out. We are learning new technologies. We are innovating. We are slowing down. We are staying home. We are supporting local restaurants. We are appreciating the arts in new ways. We are paying attention. Then we made a l’chayim and drank! Will do again!
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, Toronto

Moshe leads Allyson Gall's Zoom seder.

Moshe leads Allyson Gall’s Zoom seder. Image by Allyson Gall

Sixteen singing on Zoom was chaotic, but all O.K.
Allyson Gall, 73, Scituate, Mass.

A new seder chef is born I’d never made horseradish or charoset before; I’d just taken them for granted. Making some of the foods fresh is better than at larger institutional seders I’ve been to, and I didn’t know how easy charoset is, so maybe I’ll experiment more with charosets next year.
Noah Kahrs, 24, Rochester, N.Y.

I thought I’d be really sad and putting on a brave face for my family. Instead, I felt empowered, full of joy and really proud of myself for pulling it off!

I always thought that without my family, I would cut out more parts, but now I realize I love the singing! I found myself adding and adding as we went along. We actually took time to literally tell the story of the exodus, since our toddler didn’t know it. She was enthralled.
Carly Pildis, Washington, D.C.

Barbara Dworkin's international seder with 91 people from around the world, including Ramallah.

Barbara Dworkin’s international seder with 91 people from around the world, including Ramallah. Image by Barbara Dworkin

A story that transcends borders and nationalities
Although we have always cherished our large family gatherings around our seder table, I believe we were most surprised that we were able to create a feeling of intimacy with our Zoom Seder of 91 people from all over the world.

We learned that by creating a large international Virtual Seder, we were able to bring together family and friends of different faiths and ethnicities who would never have had the opportunity to interact with one another. Not only did we host this seder with Christians, Muslims and Jews, but some of our guests were our dear Palestinian friends from Ramallah in the West Bank. They stayed awake as long as possible despite the seven-hour time difference. I believe that our goal was to demonstrate that we are all Children of Abraham and that we have more similarities than differences.

We all took a break from the seder to have our individual dinners offline and then we reconvened after an hourlong break. I missed watching our grown children continue their annual contests to see who could swallow the most horseradish at once.
Barbara Dworkin, 67, Schenectady, N.Y.

Keeping traditions and ritual in a time of fear and stress can be a comfort.
Rachel Haus, 51, Kalamazoo, Mich.

Oren Levine's seder also featured an original song!

Oren Levine’s seder also featured an original song! Image by Oren Levine

The virtual seder hosted by an old friend from grade school was a much larger event than the planned in-person one. Without the limits of physical space, they were able to include more people from more places, expanding the number who could share the simcha.

I wrote an original song for this year’s celebration that we played before Kadesh. Maybe we can keep that in the program to remember this night so different from all other nights
Oren Levine, 57, Washington, D.C.

‘It gave purpose to the screen time’
In a typical family-dinner type of setting, we have a hard time getting the kids — and, frankly, all of us — off of devices. There was something very nice about all being connected to the same one device. It gave purpose to the screen time.

It also gave us a really nice sense of shared connection, and we for the first time in a long time had a great conversation about the meaning behind the Four Questions, and what Exodus really means. It opened up a lot of great conversations about privilege and what it is that we are truly grateful for.

We missed the tastes and smells of grandma’s amazing cooking. We had to improvise a lot of the elements on our seder plate, and we had to make do with recipes that were passed down to us but that we are not experts at producing. We missed being able to sing along as a family that is much larger than the four of us.

When we got to the section on plagues, there was a directive from our congregational leader to type in modern plagues. Of course lots of people wrote in Trump, but otherwise really thought-provoking plagues such as inequality and climate denial and lack of belief in science.

We loved the idea of talking about plagues in a modern context, and would love to incorporate that into our future Seders. We especially loved the perspective of our children and what they consider to be modern plagues. They mentioned things like education in equality and lack of civil rights for all.
Ella Leitner, 47, Torrington, Conn.

A group comes together to sing Chad Gadya at Julie Weitz's seder.

A group comes together to sing Chad Gadya at Julie Weitz’s seder. Image by Julie Weitz

‘No point in sticking to the script’
Right as I finished cooking, setting up my table and collecting all the necessary materials to lead my family seder, my Internet stopped working. It was the strangest of phenomena, and I irrationally considered if wasn’t an act of hate — had a Nazi hacker intentionally disrupted my WiFi service to prevent me from performing the Passover rituals?

As I frantically tried to restart my router and search for my login password (so I could at least log into Zoom on my phone rather than my laptop), my family started sending me texts that they were waiting to be admitted into our seder. Despite all my attempts to “order” the evening, it began in a state of panic. I soon realized that there was no point in sticking to the script; what was most important was that we were together, and seeing each other’s faces on the screen was enough.

I missed the experience of lingering in the kitchen after the seder. I made my meal alone, and ate it in my bedroom — as a way to find privacy from my non-Jewish roommates and create intimacy with my family 2,000 miles away. But the kitchen is the place in my family where Passover is centered, and I felt that I had to diminish my time there to preserve something different online and separate myself physically in my current home.
Julie Weitz, Los Angeles

‘Some things you simply can’t replace’
Besides my grandpa mastering Zoom, it surprised me that in a way I felt more present than during traditional seders. It felt more meaningful, more symbolic. It wasn’t just going through the motions of reading the Haggadah. We all chose to be there from across the country.

Usually, I have seder with my immediate family, or a few close friends. I can’t remember the last time I had a seder with this many people in my family. As horrifically terrible as everything is right now (and it is), in a way some of us have the opportunity for a reality-check. I think we get so hyper-focused on our day-to-day habits that it’s hard to imagine doing something differently — i.e., “Oh, I guess I can catch up with all my cousins across four different time zones.” Our virtual seder was the perfect example.

I think a big part of our Jewish traditions involve incorporating all of our senses. Seeing the reflection of the Shabbat candles, smelling matzah-ball soup, hugging your friends and family after havdalah. I believe this is partly why I have such strong attachments to certain traditions, and feel so connected to my Judaism in general. While virtual alternatives certainly have their own benefits, some things you simply can’t replace.
Jon Savitt, 28, Washington, D.C.

Cooking for two and 22 is much different!
Irene Goldie-Petras, 80, Union, N.J.

Shelly Heller's Zoom seder table setting.

Shelly Heller’s Zoom seder table setting. Image by Shelly Heller

Don’t sit on the Afikoman
A miracle: everyone watched my husband go somewhere unknown to hide the Afikomen. When it was time for the hunt (after we said, “Now comes the meal! Now we are going to pretend we ate it already”), my husband told all the assembled Zoom-kids that they’d get paid double next year since no one was present to find the Afikomen. And then — amazingly — our 3-year-old grandson, Zooming in another state, came running to his family’s computer to show us that he found it! Somehow, defying the laws of science, he found the Afikomen in his house and he held it up in celebration, for all to see! We were all appropriately amazed!

I missed the hello hugs and the goodbye hugs, and the hour before the seder starts when everyone is hanging around schmoozing, nibbling, and checking their watches for whoever it is that is always dangerously late to arrive.

This seder was bigger than any we’ve had before, with more limbs of the ever-growing family tree. While we will probably not host the couple from Switzerland (but how nice that they stayed up late enough to drop in!), I do have a different feeling about size than I did in the past. So what if we only have so many chairs or plates or cups. The bigger the better!

Nancy Star, 64, Montclair, N.J.

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Since we could not search for the Afikoman, one member of our family constructed a game called “Searching for the Afikoman” in history.

He came up with the name of a person who may have had a seder and a search for Afikomen. The participants had to guess the historical time, the person, and what may have been the discussion at this historical seder. It was challenging and we will probably include this as a yearly assignment as we do not always have children present to search for the afikomen.
Eva Eiseman, 83, Milwaukee

‘People actually seemed more engaged’
We worried that participants would feel disengaged or that there would be too many distractions. Instead, I think both because people were so happy to see and hear each other, and precisely because we weren’t sitting around one table and instead were focused on a screen as our only point of connection, people actually seemed more engaged, less distracted, more focusing on really listening to each other and on participating in the retelling and the ritual.

We understand the traditional Halakhic position, but we may well invite out-of-town family members to join virtually because it was wonderful to have them with us as they would not have been even absent the pandemic.
Rita Ruby, 61, Richmond, Va.

Aileen Grossberg's grandchildren crack the hardboiled eggs on their foreheads - a family tradition - from her daughter's home in Lille, France.

Aileen Grossberg’s grandchildren crack the hardboiled eggs on their foreheads - a family tradition - from her daughter’s home in Lille, France. Image by Aileen Grossberg

We thought we’d spend an hour or two together, but our our first seder lasted almost three hours and the second was close to two hours. We felt like we were actually sharing the experience because our hearts were in it and we were flexible. To accommodate our daughter and her family in France , we started our second Seder at 12:30 p.m.
Aileen Grossberg, 75, Montclair, N.J.

Doing the actual seder felt surprisingly normal. It was only later, talking during dinner that it sunk in how very different this night actually was. And the sadness began to creep back in as we chatted about the future. But during the seder — business as usual! — Peggy Walt, 60, Halifax, Nova Scotia

One for the books
Every year we note an event in our Haggadah and recount it at our Seder — some happy, as in the time a grandson sang the Mickey Mouse song, the only song he knew, when we all sang Dayenu. Some scary, as in the time the fire alarm went off telling us to “leave immediately, do not panic;” some sad, as in the first seder without “elte bubbie” to make the chopped liver. So we will update our Haggadah and recall the Time of the Coronavirus. — Shelly Heller, 76, Silver Spring, Md.


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