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Can we all just chill out this Passover?

As this crazy coronavirus Passover is upon us, I am reminded of a panicked Passover that changed the course of my religious observance: When I was a Modern Orthodox twenty-something living the Zionist dream in Israel, I went to be with my good friend’s family for Passover. She was Sabbath-observant and single, like me, and her gorgeous extended family had taken me in.

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“You eat kitniyot, right?” she said, referring to the legumes like rice, corn and bean products that non-Ashkenazi Jews consume on Passover, making it a whole lot easier than the Eastern European grain-less diet. It was about twenty minutes before candle-lighting, when we would stop using electricity and phones –- i.e., too late to leave her family’s moshav and too late to call my father for permission to break Passover. I knew what he would say: No. We do not eat legumes on Passover. It’s like breaking Passover.

Except, as I learned the rest of the evening as my friend’s father, an esteemed Conservative rabbi explained to me, it was not. First off, many Jews, upon moving to Israel, had adopted legumes in order to unite the Jewish people. I did not know what to do. Laugh as I might now, it was a serious dilemma.

Sure, I could skip the requisite hummus and bean soup, but there was still corn oil and other kitniyot everywhere. I was in a panic: breaking Passover was punishable by karet, a punishment at the hands of heaven according to Encylopeida.com (so much for my fancy Jewish education). But in extraordinary times, the rabbi explained to me, it was still okay to eat legumes if it couldn’t be helped, and certainly fine to eat on dishes that had legumes on them. And, I learned the day after that Passover, it was true. Whew.

After that Passover, as a citizen of Israel, I adopted the one-day yom tov holiday, along with the eating of legumes. Why make things more difficult for myself? Why drive a wedge between myself and other Jews?

I don’t know if that decision led to my Orthodox downfall, or if it was the hundreds of other liberal, feminist values that came up against my childhood belief system, but after marrying a secular Israeli ten years ago, I’ve come to think of myself as a traditional New York cultural Jew (or ex-Orthodox, depending on the day).

These days, our Passover seders are largely spent at others’ houses, confirming to their customs: With my Modern Orthodox friend, we lean on a pillow and drink wine for the four cups while waiting hungrily for the main meal; with my Israeli sister-in-law, it’s humus and matzah and a truncated maggid storytelling. And at my sister’s, where we often go so our preschoolers can be together, my mother and sister make all the food and host because my house isn’t kosher and my sister doesn’t drive on the holiday.

“Can’t we just skip Passover?” my husband often complains, especially because we go to not one seder as per Israeli custom but two, just to be with our families.

Well, you fished your wish, as they say in the card game Go Fish.

Passover, in my humble opinion, should be officially cancelled this year.

But it’s not, of course. Nothing in Judaism is ever cancelled, which is mostly for the best. (Except this year, when we should have shut down Purim celebrations and shut down shuls and prayer minyans and shivas and weddings before the entire ultra-Orthodox community became a hotbed of infection.)

Passover should at least be tamped down, though. It already is a bit, simply by the nature of the quarantine. Most people can’t have seders together anymore, especially with their elderly parents, if they don’t want to risk infecting this at-risk population.

But can’t we tamp down expectations too?

It’s happening already. Some rabbis say you don’t have to throw out your vegetables before Passover, you can just wash them. Others say if you don’t have new linens and other household goods you can make do with the old ones. We don’t need to do the symbolic “burning of the chametz” leavened bread, which in general is an environmental hazard (especially in Israel) but this year can actually harm people.

But I want more.

I don’t want people to have to turn their houses upside down ridding themselves of leavened products even as their kids are at home making a mess with… said leavened products. I don’t want us to have to quarantine our hoarded food so we can subsist on new, more expensive kosher-for Passover hoarded food. And I don’t want a Passover seder with 15 appetizers and the latest, 20-ingredient salads.

I just wish that this Passover, with the world falling apart, that we could all keep it simple: Buy our seder plate ingredients (or gift them to someone — La Gondola in LA is offering Passover in a Box), cook Leah Koenig’s pared-down Passover menu, use the good old Manischewitz Haggadah, tell the story ofPassover — it’s not hard to think of what freedom means in these quarantined, isolated times — and enjoy our families in front of us and those connected via Zoom.

And maybe — although this is probably too much to hope for — only have one seder, one day of holiday, in the spirit of Israel. And end our first seder with meaning: Next year in Jerusalem.

Amy Klein is the author of The Trying Game: Get Through Fertility Treatment and Get Pregnant Without Losing Your Mind.

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