OK, so maybe this wasn’t the most fulfilling Passover in living memory. Adapting to the virtual seder model on Zoom and FaceTime was a novelty, but if we never go back to it again, I don’t think anyone will miss the experience.
Antiseptic may be the best and most apt description for these digital celebrations. Ordinarily, tablecloths are spotted with wine and covered in matzah saw dust. This year such droppings were kept from view as unsanitary. Similarly, chairs that would normally be inches apart never made it out of the closet. Social-distancing edicts gave seders the same empty-arena feel as canceled sporting events.
We are all now potentially contaminated carriers of an enigmatic virus. And that’s why this year’s Passover seders were all sterile affairs.
Many ended early. Even Elijah looked upon such checkered gatherings with its tightly sealed doors and thought that the quarantine applied to him as well. Under such paranoid conditions, who would open a door for a prophet who might accidentally spill a droplet of wine?
A holiday that commemorates the Israelites’ liberation from bondage requires a bonding of a different sort—the human ties that bind. Liberation demanded that Jews would forever be bound to one another. Yet this year’s Passover coincided with stay-at-home orders. Seders were performed in seclusion, wholly unbound.
Sequestered Jews have nothing in common with those who fled Egypt in tightly knit tribes.
This year will be remembered as the Passover that depended on gadgetry and shunned the human touch. Computer screens, no matter the resolution, will never have enough pixels to replace a physical presence. Tiny boxes of people arranged on a screen does not a seder table make. They were as cold as those tablets that hold much more information than the Ten Commandments, yet none of the fire that inscribed them.
Reimagining the Exodus from Egypt always conjured an overcrowding of affiliated Jews. Their absence this year made this Passover different from all other nights.
Which is not to say that the thousands of Passovers past were all alike. Indeed, unpredictable seders, historically, are par for the course. Passover and crisis have always been companions—since the very first one culminating in the Exodus itself.
Indeed, Passovers often take place within the direct path of calamity. Some have inspired anti-Semites to mount Passion Plays with real-life pogroms as encores. Others presented occasions for Jews to demonstrate in defiance of tyrannies. Still others portended new murderous acts of Jew-hatred.
After all, this holiday includes the signature motivation for the blood libel itself. Passover is when matzah gets made, and every pathological anti-Semite knows that Christian blood is an essential ingredient in its making. Blood libels often make their rounds during Passover, perpetuated like medieval clockwork. The recipe for the bread of affliction is tricky not because of the absence of yeast and baking on the run. The hard part is the kidnappings of Christian children.
Throughout history, Passover has spelled unlucky tidings. Clearly, the Last Supper was not the best seder Jesus Christ ever attended. Yes, a few days later, he makes an Easter resurrection, but he probably could have done without the treachery that made that Passover his last.
The past few generations of Passovers have had moments of inspiration, revolt and revulsion. The Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which took place during Passover, represented the first time Nazis fled from Jewish snipers and Molotov-cocktail-hurlers.
Similarly, the refuseniks of the Soviet Union—faced with edicts that prohibited bakeries from making matzah—celebrated Passover clandestinely and at great personal risk. Doing so, however, helped upend the paradigm of the Cold War.
It is impossible to forget Passover in 2002 in the coastal Israeli city of Netanya. A Hamas suicide-bomber walked into a hotel with a seder already in progress, detonated himself, murdering 30 people and injuring 140 others. It was the deadliest attack of the Second Intifada.
In 2017, one day before Passover, a white supremacist in Kansas City opened fire on both a Jewish community center and an assisted-living facility. Two days later, in Ukraine, five masked Russians handed out leaflets to Jews mandating that they pay a fee, register as Jews and document their property. It was all a hoax, but a traumatic one. It was in the same location where, in 1941, some 40,000 Jews were stripped naked and gunned down in a ravine in Babi Yar.
Anti-Semites are never at a loss for reminding Jews not to get too comfortable. Such mind games invariably dredge up buried traumas of once having been enslaved in Egypt, or tortured in the Inquisition or murdered in the Holocaust.
New pyramids can always be envisioned for Jews to forcibly build under the threat of the lash.
Until this coronavirus, most Jews have had it easy during this holiday. Forgoing bread is a small price to pay to show solidarity with biblical forebears. Israel’s creation in 1948 made the Haggadah’s finale refrain, “Next year in Jerusalem,” no longer a leap of faith. Jerusalem became a real travel destination.
Humanity in crisis presents opportunities for reflection. COVID-19 dampened this Passover. But its hindering of the holiday was not inconsistent with the Passover story itself.
The only difference is that the non-prejudicial nature of this contagion has made the entire world as vulnerable as Jews.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro College, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. His latest work is “Saving Free Speech … from Itself.” He can be reached via his website.