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Celebrating Passover during a plague

What celebrating Passover on Zoom with my family taught me about gratitude, even in the hardest of times

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Gillian Friedman’s family gathers over Zoom to participate in the Passover Seder.

Gillian Friedman, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Every Passover Seder — the ceremony recounting the Jews’ Exodus from slavery in Egypt — begins the same way. The youngest child at the table, who is often participating in the Passover Seder for the first time, stands up and sings a song. 

Called “The Four Questions,” the song encapsulates the curiosity of a young child suspiciously eyeing the strange foods set before them — unleavened crackers called Matzah instead of bread, parsley dipped in salt water before eating, raw horseradish so bitter it makes your nose run and eyes water — and wondering why this meal looks and tastes so different than normal. The child sings to his or her parents in Hebrew, asking:

“Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights, we eat bread, but on this night we eat Matzah. On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night we eat horseradish.” 

The parents, in turn, then answer the child: “It is because we were slaves in Egypt, and God freed us.” 

In other words, once a year, Jews eat different foods than normal because doing something that feels starkly different than our normal routine shocks us into gratitude, it forces us to physically remember that life was not always this way. The foods we eat reminds us we were once slaves in Egypt, but now we are free. 

We eat horseradish to remember the bitterness of oppression, we dip parsley in salt water to symbolize the tears of Jewish slaves, we eat charoset — a combination of apples, cinnamon and honey — because it resembles the mortar the Jewish slaves used between the bricks they laid to build Pharaoh’s pyramids. We eat matzah instead of bread because when Pharaoh finally allowed the Jews to leave Egypt, they didn’t even have time to allow their bread to rise before they fled, snatching unleavened loaves from their ovens and running, fearful that Pharaoh would change his mind (which he soon did).

In my family, The Four Questions have become something of a running joke. That’s because I am the youngest child, and after I first sang The Four Questions as a 5-year-old, there was no one younger than me to take my place the next year, or the year after that. And now, roughly 21 years later, it still falls on me — in my mid-20s but still the baby of the family — to sing it. 

But this year when I sang The Four Questions, the song seemed to take on a new, pressing significance. When I sang, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” it wasn’t just the horseradish and the Matzah that came to mind. It was the obvious fact that tonight was different, because my family was not together to celebrate Passover. 

Normally, my entire family would be in Seattle, 40 guests sitting shoulder to shoulder at our large wood table, singing loudly together while the smell of my mom’s famous matzah ball soup wafted in from the kitchen. But this year, because of COVID-19, such a gathering was impossible. 

So we decided to move the festivities to Zoom instead, bringing together my parents in Seattle, my siblings and their partners in Oakland, and me, in Salt Lake City, via video chat. My dad sent each member of our family a Haggadah (the Passover prayer book), and my mom sent out her famous Passover recipes, encouraging each of us to make the traditional foods on our own. 

And when the clock struck 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday night and each of us joined the Zoom call, every one of our tables were elegantly decorated with the traditional foods of Passover. Though many of us had our doubts about whether a Zoom call would be able to capture the essence of the Passover holiday, we were surprised to find that more than four hours later, we were all still laughing and singing together. 

Of course, this is hardly the first time Jews have observed Passover in trying times. Even in concentration camps during the Holocaust, some Jews managed to keep Passover, saving potato scraps for weeks beforehand so that they could survive without eating bread for eight days. 

Perhaps that’s why as Jews, we say that we “keep” Passover. We don’t observe or practice it. We “keep” it, holding on it to it and refusing to let it go. How fitting, then, that this year we should keep Passover in the midst of a plague.

Passover is about remembering the hardships in our past, so we can be grateful for our present, and ensure the same freedom for our children. The holiday is about gratitude, that we should not take our health and freedom for granted, that we must work to ensure that these blessings endure. Indeed, celebrating Passover on video chat made me feel more grateful than ever for my family’s health and love, for the fact that every single other year before, I have been surrounded by family on Passover — something that before this year, I took for granted.

At the end of May, my sister will give birth to a baby girl, the first grandchild in our family. That little girl will be born during an unprecedented time of instability and fear, when so much unknown and frightening in the world. But there is so much to be grateful for, too, there is still so much she can count on. Even listening in the womb during our Seder, I’m sure she felt the fierceness of our family’s love for one another, our commitment to keeping our Jewish traditions alive, even in the most trying of circumstances. 

After 20 years of singing The Four Questions, soon I will finally be able to pass the torch to that little girl, so that she may be the one to sing them, to ask why the Passover Seder is different from all other nights. As the first grandchild, she will represent a whole new generation of our family, and I hope she will one day use the answers to those questions — the ones she learned so young — to pick up the Passover traditions and carry them on, and on and on, as Jews have done for centuries, through plagues and persecution of all kinds.