I participated in six seders last year. Yes, six.
Among the six, was a unique experience in Kharkiv, Ukraine, the country’s second largest city, where I played a game of laser tag with young adults before sitting down for the festive meal. I spent the first night seder with 200 local Ukrainians in Kyiv hosted by Chabad, and had a seder at the JCC hosted especially for community professionals, and a final memorable experience happened in a small apartment with 12 elderly Jewish women who were learning and reconnecting with their Jewish roots.
At each seder I assured my translator that I really didn’t need the Exodus story translated. I knew the story. Though maybe “sedered out” by the end of the week, each experience taught me lessons about the connection and care in which we tell this specific story.
This is not the first time I’ve spent seder outside my parent’s home. I had an Italian seder while backpacking through Europe, and spent a few years working at a Passover program in Mexico.
Each time I’ve been away, I’ve written a sappy note to be shared at the family seder table. I recall always describing the beauty found in knowing that while apart and in places that look different, we are saying the same words, telling the same story, and in the moment we might feel sad, that we are still connected.
Writing those words now, gives me the chills.
This year will be different for many. We are experiencing a time where we don’t need Passover to remind us of hardship, to remind us of death, destruction, and pain. Suddenly, this year we don’t need to look toward ancient stories to actually understand a plague. We have an up-close view of what a pandemic is, and our story of freedom begins to take new meaning.
Some of us might be hosting a seder for the first time, we might be trying to acquire matzo all on our own, not being able to rely on those who have done it for us in the past. Those who have led seders for years, may suddenly be the youngest one at home. Despite the challenge, we can only hope to find space to recognize the little things. It might not be easy, but remember, we are all telling the same story.
On the first night of Passover last year, I was welcomed by the local English speaking Rebbetzin to the large communal seder that would be led in Russian. Knowing the loneliness of spending weeks traveling solo around a holiday was creeping in, I was a bit apprehensive as I made my way to the table full of the “non-Russian” speakers, the few Jewish travelers who had found their way to Kyiv. With our diverse set of customs, varied languages, and some with a lack of interest in the seder, I remember having to keep the tears in, not wanting to cry in front of these strangers, and missing home. Even so, I stayed. I needed to hear the story, even if I didn’t understand the Russian. I needed the connection.
I think about my resilience, as I’ve been socially distanced. Though I was surrounded by hundreds last year I still felt alone and sad. But I had an experience. I showed up for myself, and others showed up for me.
I often look to that resilience. The world is in a state that makes it impossible to have these experiences abroad right now. Passover doesn’t look the same this year for so many, plans cancelled, feelings of and physical isolation.
Here is what can’t be cancelled, the story, the connection. It’s this connection to our past, to other stories of freedom, to people who had it tough and made it through.
If you are looking for structure in your day (moms and dads and work from homers I see you), guess what? The seder has that.
It is literally an instruction manual. It tells us when to drink wine (moms and dads and work from homers I still see you), and that we should have four glasses! It tells you to ask questions, to do a few things specifically different than you’ve been doing, even encouraging you to lean a little. It gives space to ask questions (Why on this night…) and to answer them.
It even provides space for arguments, showing us the Rabbis even argued and it was about math. They argue whether the 10 plagues were actually numbered much greater than 10 and then multiplied by five-fold to make an even bigger impact?
No, it won’t be easy. But this year we have an opportunity to learn more than we ever have before, we have an opportunity to grow. Maybe it’s the opportunity to take on leading the seder because you are distanced from your usual leader. Maybe it’s the opportunity for the children to step up and learn more about the stories, maybe it’s an opportunity to share old family memories to be passed down for years to come. Maybe it’s the opportunity to get a little more creative or a little more traditional. There is an abundance of resources for Passover and I’m happy to share any of them, should you need, but that’s not what I’m going to do here.
Here, I wanted to share what connects me to my past, what has kept me connected each time I’ve been abroad, and what will hopefully keep me connected in the future.
When I was little and my Grandfather would be leading the seder and mumbling every single word of the Haggadah under his breath, the rest of us showed off our Hebrew reading, sang songs and my Grandma Jean would be interrupting and sharing stories, as she did. But, when it came time to open the door for Elijah, everything stopped, she would get all the kids up and we’d go to the door and open it with her. Maybe it was just an excuse to stand up or that it was fun for us to see if Elijah’s cup had emptied.
But it’s this moment that forever connects me. To some meaningless, but to me small and powerful. Anytime I’ve needed a little connection while I’ve been in Ukraine, in Mexico, in Italy, I get it at this moment in the seder. I get up and go to the door and feel connected to my grandmother who died before I’d ever been away for a holiday, whose family was from the part of the world where I sat last year, whose face I saw in the women I shared a seder with in that tiny apartment eating boiled potatoes together.
Past, present, and stories to share in the future.
Corona or not, together or apart, we are all telling the same story, holding onto the same victories, the same sorrow, the same pain, and the same hope. It’s these times that we get to create, and find moments. Share them or hold it close.
If we all find one little moment, we might just feel a little more connected, even if we are really far apart.