Mrs. Hersh, a matriarch of a large clan in the Satmar Hasidic community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, usually approaches the Passover Seder with a royal touch.
Every year, in the month before Passover, Hersh makes a trip to the Bergdorf Goodman’s department store in Manhattan and buys herself an evening gown. She sets the Seder table with her finest silverware, puts on the gown and all of her jewelry, and sits like a queen, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, telling stories of her own father’s delivery from the Holocaust.
This year, there is no new gown. Mrs. Hersh, 67, will be setting the table for two — just she and her husband. Her 92-year-old mother will be alone in her apartment nearby, and Mrs. Hersh’s seven children — including Joel and Miriam Hersh — will each be doing private Seders in their homes.
“We’re taking this seriously,” said Joel Hersh, who is 38 and a property manager. Hersh and his wife Miriam, 34, grew up in the Satmar community of Williamsburg, and now live in Pomona, N.Y., in Rockland County. The couple has two children, ages 10 and 7; they are now preparing for Passover in quarantine, like countless other Jewish families.
In the nine years since they left Williamsburg — and thus Joel’s parents’ Seder table — the couple has hosted their own large Seders in their home, and prefer to spend the rest of Passover in Miami. But this year, the Hershs canceled all such plans weeks ago, when the intensity of the oncoming pandemic started to become clear.
Purim had been the usual boisterous affair — costumed children running around on sugar highs, extravagant Mishloach Manot baskets exchanged with friends, drunken feasts with the community.
But late that night, the couple received an email that their girls’ school would have a delayed opening the next day. And the next day came an announcement that school was closed. Joeli went straight to the Bingo’s kosher wholesale store and stocked up on food, even as friends said he was overreacting.
“That turned out to be a blessing,” Miriam said by phone. “Because I have not left my house since Purim.”
Joel has continued to go to his office daily — he is the only one there, so it does not seem to violate social-distancing guidelines. Their daughters are generally studying online from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and later help their mother with baking and chores.
“The first week I freaked out because what am I going to do with the kids at home,” Miriam said. “By now, I feel like I’m a different person towards my kids - I’m calmer. Usually every Sunday my kids are like ‘where are we going.’ But now my husband is home for dinner, we cook together. It really is bringing us together in a beautiful bond. The kids are happy — we always used to be busy rushing, between clients.”
The Hershs usually host large crowds for Shabbat dinners, too, but not since Purim. “We right away said we’re sorry, we can send you food for Shabbos, but no one can join now,” Miriam recalled. “I felt so sorry for the single mothers, it’s so sad that they have to be alone.”
At the same time, Miriam said that her home-based wig business has seen a considerable decline during this time of sheltering at home. “Some ladies are dropping off their wigs by the door for styling, and picking them up later,” she explained, “but most aren’t so interested because they’re not going out anyways, so they don’t care so much for the style.”
This week, she sold a wig for the first time via FaceTime. “A desperate bride texted me asking to do it with her via video chat,” Miriam recalled. “It’s very hard — the wig is one of the most emotional things for the kallah, usually you sit with them and they cry, I hold their hands,” she said with a sigh. “This is usually our biggest season.”
In their local community chat groups, tensions run high as Orthodox relatives and neighbors die at a frightening rate. “There were some arguments in the group — some people are asking others to stop sharing when someone dies,” Miriam said, adding that she herself has stopped checking WhatsApp as frequently. “People are very sensitive, they’re aggravated. People are scared.”
“It’s not healthy for me,” she added. “One person says sleep with an onion next to your bed, the other yells back. People are bored and frustrated.”
Just as her mother-in-law plans to maintain her sense of royalty, Miriam is trying to make their seder-for-four as festive as possible. On the menu: Satmar matzos, salmon teriyaki over a bed of lettuce, chicken soup, brisket, apple crumble with a scoop of ice cream — and a lot of wine. “I have my rosé, red, white,” Miriam said. “We love wine.”
On Wednesday morning, the family planned to burn their chometz in their backyard, and then roast marshmallows while playing Passover music.
They’re praying that other community members will stay isolated this Passover. But Joel said that even after weeks of public-health messaging, “some people don’t understand how the virus travels,” and that “even those who do understand it, when it comes to Pesach, a lot more than the minority is getting together.”
Miriam said such people are “not selfish, they really don’t know how to be alone with themselves.”
“Even when I got married, I used to sleep by my mother’s, my mother would feed my kids — it’s very hard for people to see it any other way,” she said. Her husband added: “If my 92-year old grandmother — who has never done a seder by herself - can do it on her own, a lot of people do it on their own, too.”
Miriam said she wanted Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York “to put a lockdown in those clusters,” referring to hotspots like Monsey, N.Y., and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where there are high rates of Covid-19 in Orthodox communities. “The second that people go out again, we will be back at square one,” she lamented. “It has to be brought to an end. People need to get back to work.”
What do the Hershs hope for next year’s Passover?
“Hopefully next year, after being in quarantine, people will learn to live without all the usual luxuries,” Miriam said. “We should take the good that we can learn from all of this.”
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Life/Features editor at the Forward. She was previously a New York-based reporter for Haaretz. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Tablet, among others. Avital teaches journalism at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, and does pastoral work alongside her husband Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in New York City.