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‘Everyone’s talking about the plagues:’ Making haggadahs for a Passover unlike any before

When Rishe Groner, a rabbinical student spending the year in Jerusalem, began self-isolating in her apartment in mid-March, she was already thinking ahead to Passover.

She hoped that restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 would lift in time for the holiday, allowing her to organize a Seder with other single people in her neighborhood, or travel to celebrate with family in Melbourne, Australia.

But the countrywide quarantine only intensified, and Groner soon realized that this year, she’d be hosting a Seder for one.

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Determined to find some meaning in the endeavor, not just survive it, she set about writing a haggadah for those spending the holiday alone. Still in its early drafts, the haggadah replaces responsive readings with guided meditations and group rituals with reflections on personal development. And in the process of working on it, Groner has realized that celebrating alone comes with some perks.

She’d never quite realized how much Passover’s potential for introspection can be overshadowed by crowded tables, conflicting ideas about how best to proceed, and pressure to, in her words, “zip through the haggadah as quickly as you can” before the kids get too hungry. Readers of her haggadah, she said, should feel free to snack throughout the Seder — especially if doing so gives them more time to contemplate the story or take advantage of the unexpected “moment of reset” that social distancing offers.

For most, this Passover will not be like those that came before. Prevented from congregating with extended family, many are facing the holiday alone or in smaller groups than usual. Some are weighing virtual Seders against smaller, in-person gatherings. Families who have never before hosted Passover suddenly have to procure their own Seder plates — and wonder if, with store closures and restricted movements, they’ll be able to find all the components needed to fill them.

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Amid the confusion, experienced and amateur haggadah creators alike are scrambling to create new resources and increase access to existing ones.

Hearing stories of disrupted Passover plans, Jerusalem-based artist Eli Kaplan-Wildmann wondered how to help. In 2019, he self-published the “Unbound Haggadah,” a set of handcrafted cards that guides participants through the Seder while encouraging discussion and reinterpretation. Kaplan-Wildmann thought the “Unbound Haggadah” could be especially helpful for families trepidatiously hosting their first Seders, but he also knew its normal retail price, $118, put it out of reach for many.

So he applied for funding to defray costs from the Schusterman Family Foundation, a Jewish philanthropic organization. By selling the haggadahs at cost and using grant money to subsidize shipping, Kaplan-Wildmann halved the haggadah’s price. In addition, he plans to host a series of Zoom sessions in order to guide first-time users through the rituals.

Others are pivoting away from physical haggadahs altogether. For years, Massachusetts-based software engineer Seth Alter had toyed with the idea of designing his own haggadah. Finally, prompted by family discussions of a Zoom Seder this Passover, he decided to write one specifically tailored to virtual celebrations. His haggadah includes instructions on how to rotate readings around a virtual table, advice on when participants should and shouldn’t mute their microphones, and alternative rituals for those who lack access to specific dishes or parts of the Seder plates. He’s still working on a virtual afikomen search.

Also foreseeing the likelihood of virtual Seders, haggadah publisher Behrman House is converting two of its most popular haggadahs, Rabbi Ellen Bernstein’s “The Promise of the Land” and Deborah Gross-Zuchman’s “The Essential Seder,” to e-book format. It’s also instituted free shipping for orders over $30, hoping to make it more economical for customers to send haggadahs to family members hunkered down across the country.

Of course, virtual innovations aren’t accessible to Jews who abstain from technology on holidays. While Groner, who is training in the Conservative movement, is making her haggadah available on her blog, she’s also hoping to get access to a printer before Passover so she can celebrate without recourse to a computer. Though celebrating offline in her apartment may be isolating, she also hopes that it will add more meaning to the experience.

“Right now we’re in this moment where we all have to stop,” she said. “Hopefully we’re learning to be more present in our own lives.”

While Koren, a Jerusalem-based religious publishing house, is currently offering customers free shipping, it is not converting haggadahs to ebook formats, as its largely Orthodox clientele would be unable to use them. Daniel Rose, a Jerusalem-based educator who developed Koren’s “Youth Haggadah,” is hosting Zoom sessions to help families prepare for the Seder in advance.

When talking to parents, Rose stresses that Passover’s ancient rituals provide children with a very modern educational experience, allowing them to learn by doing. “On Passover, we don’t talk about bitterness, we eat maror,” he said. He hopes that celebrating Passover after weeks confined to their home will help them relate more deeply to the haggadah’s narrative of oppression and liberation.

Rose isn’t the only one for whom this year’s privations are creating a heightened appreciation of the Passover story itself. “Everyone’s talking about the plagues,” said Vicki Weber, a partner at Behrman House who often works with Jewish educators. “What’s it like to live through something that looks like a plague?”

Brooklyn-based Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson, who developed the 2020 haggadah for the Jewish social justice organization T’ruah, is currently working on a series of supplementary readings to “bridge the grief people are feeling right now” and offer hope for the future. As he works, he’s thinking not just about the physical suffering pandemics inflict, but the deeper social tensions they expose.

“Our haggadah focuses on underlying issues in our society, including racism, classism, xenophobia,” he said. “Those are some of the issues that a crisis like a pandemic surfaces in new ways.” He referenced the Trump administration’s decision to postpone asylum hearings and turn away migrants from the United States’ southern border as a response to the pandemic. It’s a move Rabbi Nelson interprets as a xenophobic gesture rather than a good-faith attempt to curb the spread of coronavirus — especially as most cases now originate from community spread, not foreign travel.

But Nelson also sees in the Passover story evidence that plagues, ancient and modern, can spark social change. For example, he said, the 18th-century Tanakh commentary “Me’am Loez” mentions that after the plague of boils, the Egyptians relaxed laws that prevented Israelites from using public bathhouses. “Having suffered a skin plague themselves,” he said, the Egyptians began to realize that “distinction between races is silly.”

For some, a certain inflexibility is what allows the Passover story to retain its essential meaning. “It’s an eternal story that’s not necessarily supposed to be time- or site-specific,” said Alana Newhouse, editor of Tablet Magazine and co-author of the recently-released Tablet Haggadah. “I don’t know that we need to adapt it too much.”

Since online retailers like Amazon have deprioritized shipments of non-essential items, Newhouse is fulfilling orders for Tablet’s haggadah from a stash of copies in her home, wearing gloves and a mask as she assembles each package. She hopes that the durability of the haggadah — a document that has appeared in untold iterations but always told the same story — will help people rise above this year’s circumscribed celebrations.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re by yourself or whether you have the perfect haggadah or if there’s something wrong with your Seder plate,” she said. “The magic will be there, no matter what.”

Irene Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected].

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