Students find silver lining in Passover despite limitations

Students find silver lining in Passover despite limitations

Sammy Levy (11) and his family celebrate Passover at home during quarantine. Though this seder was simpler and smaller, compared to previous years, it was still meaningful, Levy said.

Last year, Assaf Cohen-Arazi (12) spent his spring break in Ramat Hasharon, the city in Israel where most of his family lives. Passover and spring break just happened to line up nicely that year, Cohen-Arazi said, so his parents decided to experience something a little different. Usually, he and his family celebrate Passover with local Israeli friends.

“It was very different when I did it with my grandparents last year,” Cohen-Arazi said. “For the one we do with local friends in America, we’re much less orthodox about it.”

Passover, or Pesach, is a major Jewish holiday that celebrates the exodus of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt as told in the Torah, the principal religious text in Judaism. The seder, a ceremonial dinner, is held on the first night, marking the beginning of the seven- or eight-day Passover period.

This year, however, the large gatherings and extravagant meals that typify Passover seders were limited by the social distancing restrictions established as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was very much in denial at first,” Cohen-Arazi said. “It took me many weeks to realize that [the pandemic] would actually affect my personal life and my education. Having a seder as a family, by ourselves, increased the realization that this is not a dream.”

In the face of these social regulations, many families turned to technology as a way to connect during Passover. 

For Cohen-Arazi, his family’s solution was to use Zoom, a video-conferencing application that has experienced widespread usage following worldwide quarantine. 

“It was much less intimate this year because no one was actually with each other,” Cohen-Arazi said. “Of course, there were technical issues, too, like the delay when we tried to sing songs. It was pretty funny though.”

Because his relatives live in Israel, the 10-hour time difference forced Cohen-Arazi to hold the Zoom call early.

“We didn’t have any food because it was still in the morning for us,” Cohen-Arazi said. “We didn’t eat anything. We just sang with them.”

Jennifer Dunn (11), whose family usually holds a small seder with relatives, also used Zoom this year. As the person responsible for handling the Zoom call, Dunn said she felt that her seder experience was diminished.

“With family like mine, who like to talk a lot, it doesn’t work,” Dunn said. “One-on-one conversations are basically impossible on Zoom when you have a lot of people on one call. It was more stressful than it needed to be.”

Reaching out to family digitally was better than nothing, Rachel Carr (11) said.

“It was still comforting to connect with the rest of my family, but it just wasn’t quite the same,” Carr said.

Like most Jewish holidays, a large aspect of Passover is the food. For Sammy Levy (11), this was something particularly impacted due to celebrating in quarantine.

“I usually look forward to all the food because there are so many traditional Passover dishes that are really delicious,” Levy said. “It’s super cool to try foods from different families and cultures, so it was unfortunate that we didn’t get to do that this year.”

Many were unable to carry out family traditions, as well. Usually, Nina Sagi (12) and her family recreate one of the 10 plagues that occurs in the exodus story, she said, particularly the infestation of frogs.

“My grandma always brings these little frog toys, the ones that you press on to make them jump,” Sagi said. “It’s such a silly thing, but not having those was surprisingly sad.”

Every year, Cohen-Arazi said, his family in Israel makes lamb for the seder.

“What we do to take it out of the pot is flip it onto a table,” Cohen-Arazi explained. “It’s this big tradition that everyone gathers around for, this flipping. They didn’t flip it on camera this year, unfortunately.” 

Nevertheless, many students discovered silver linings in their altered seders. Some found that they connected to the Passover story on a deeper level, compared to before.

“It was more one-on-one, more personal,” Cohen-Arazi said. “My dad explained the small details and went into depth a little more, instead of just reading through [the story]. It’s harder to do that when there’s a lot more people.”

Jonathan Levine (10) agreed, saying that quarantine circumstances encouraged his family to dig into the story.

“The whole gravity of being stuck in our homes and having nothing to do kind of makes you dive into the story more,” Levine said. “You’re more interested in seeing the details. Normally, we have a short seder because we skip through to the main points, but this year, we were actually reading the story itself.”

Modern seders often focus on how the Israelites’ escape from slavery reflects current peoples’ deliverance from constriction or oppression, which many students found applicable in current times. 

“The story feels a little more relatable now,” Sarah Dean (10) said. “We’re all trapped somewhere.”

Rachel Carr (11) and her family enjoy the first night of Passover with their relatives via Zoom. This year, Carr said, she especially missed eating her grandmother’s charoset, a sweet mixture of fruits and nuts traditionally made for the seder.

Though the Passover story makes up a great part of the holiday, the social gathering with family and friends comprises an equally, if not larger, portion for many students.

“I value it as an excuse to hang out with friends,” Cohen-Arazi said. “My Israeli friends don’t go to the same school as me, so I already don’t have that many opportunities to see them. This was always a way for us to get together. It didn’t matter what was going on—we would always get together during this day. I more greatly appreciate the fact that I can have this excuse to have a social setting, at least once a year.”

Like Cohen-Arazi, several students realized the extent to which they appreciate the holiday, after having experienced it in isolation.

“I think next year, if this is all over, we’ll definitely appreciate being together more,” Dean said. “That’s something, not just for Pesach but also in general, that we’ve always taken for granted.”

Despite the setbacks brought about by COVID-19, Levy said, it’s important that everyone’s making do. 

“It’s really reminded us that we are lucky for everything that we have,” Levy said. “Even when the situation we’re in isn’t necessarily ideal, we should still be grateful for everything that we still get to do.”

The experience also led to a few unexpected insights. Cohen-Arazi, for instance, found that the Zoom call brought his family a little closer to his relatives in Israel.

“Now that everyone’s isolated, we’re now equally apart from everyone,” Cohen-Arazi said. “It would be weird if we were the only ones on a Zoom call in during a regular seder. But now, it didn’t matter if you lived here or in Israel: everyone’s at home, so that was kind of a way to connect us.”

In addition, the Zoom calls unintentionally uncovered a celebratory discrepancy.

“The Zoom call reveals who knows the songs and who doesn’t,” Cohen-Arazi said. “When everyone’s there, you can get away with it by mouthing random stuff, but now, if your green box isn’t there, you know something’s up. For the very obscure songs, it suddenly got very quiet during the call.”

Based on this experience of a distanced seder, a few students want to change the way they celebrate Passover in the future, assuming that the COVID-19 crisis has abated by then. 

For Cohen-Arazi, this means holding Zoom calls with their relatives in Israel every year.

For Sagi, this means giving more weight to certain aspects of the seder. 

“Usually, we go around and share things about our life, like good things that have happened,” Sagi said. “I would like for there to be more opportunities like that—more emphasis on the fact that we’re all coming together to celebrate.”

For Levine, this means taking more initiative about increasing his engagement in the seder.

“I want to try and get more involved in the seder,” Levine said. “Usually, my mom and my dad do most of the talking, but I did read a bit more than I had done compared to previous years. I think being able to dive more into the story this time is why I want to do that.”

For Levy, this means reflecting on this year’s Passover.

“I’ll think that it was really cool that, even though there was such a worldwide crisis going on, we were still able to enjoy the little things in life and still get to participate in holidays,” Levy said. “We’ll talk about the COVID-19 crisis and reflect on it: what we did well, what we learned from it, and what we can do differently so that it won’t happen again.”

In general, students found something to gain from this year’s Passover, despite the impacts of the pandemic.

“Coronavirus can’t stop everything,” Levine said. “The tradition just survives.”