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New Passover Traditions Emerge From Pandemic Year

This year's celebrations are a hybrid of virtual and in-person events

Passover dinner with the family

Sam Feinsilver/Getty Images

En español | Last year via Zoom but this year in person? That's the question many Jews are asking as they clean, shop and cook in preparation for Passover.

As people get ready to celebrate the biblical story of the Jews’ liberation from slavery, families are figuring out the best way to do it safely. Increased availability of COVID-19 vaccines and new federal guidance that allows some in-person gathering has some Jews tentatively moving away from the year of Zoom festivals, bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals.

Roberta Safer, 81, and her husband, Klaus Zwilsky, 88, of Palm Springs, California, have both had COVID-19 and been vaccinated, and they are excited to gather with extended family. After what Safer calls a “depressing” Zoom seder last year, they'll host 14 people this year. Vaccinated guests will be inside with patio doors open and the table extended outside for others. Safer says she doesn't think they'll go on Zoom at all.

"When you have pictures of people and handing around the phone or on your laptop, it just isn't the same,” she says.


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Hybrid seder traditions emerge

The eight-day Passover holiday begins with the seder, a celebratory meal at which Jews gather with family and friends to read from the Haggadah, a sort of guide with prayers, blessings and stories. It's an interactive, often intergenerational meal in which elders pass along the history of the Jewish people and children are encouraged to ask questions. And while there are prescribed rituals and rules, each family enjoys its own customs.

Traditionally, families living outside Israel have two seders, one on each of the first two nights of the holiday. Before the pandemic, Heidi Skolnik, 59, and her husband, Michael Glantz, 62, of Bergen County, New Jersey, hosted 40 people from his family on the first night and 25 from her side on the second. In 2020, they still had two separate seders — but on Zoom.

"It was poignant because we all still connected,” Skolnik says. “Here we were with this obstacle, but we figured out a way to observe and persevere. In some ways the holiday became even more meaningful.”

Skolnik creates her own Haggadah, connecting the ancient story of the Jews with news of the day for tableside discussion. In 2020, her version of the Haggadah focused on inclusion and she sent it to relatives who tuned in online from both coasts. They read from the Haggadah as a group but then ate separately. Although the experience was warm and loving, Skolnik says she missed the side conversations, the spontaneous joking and laughing as cousins poke each other and share secrets.

This year, on the first night, Skolnik and Glantz will host an in-person seder for eight people, seven of whom have been vaccinated. (Some others may join by Zoom.) The second night will be only on Zoom. Skolnik has her Haggadah ready, and this year's focus will be on social justice. “The cool thing about Passover is just how relevant it is.”

Andrew Silow-Carroll and daughter Kayla connected with extended family on Zoom during Passover 2020.

Courtesy Silow-Carroll family

Andrew Silow-Carroll and daughter Kayla connected with extended family on Zoom during Passover 2020.

Passing on Passover traditions

While most Jews have seders at home, some assemble in restaurants and others turn the holiday into a vacation, traveling to hotel- and resort-based seders around the world. Raphi Bloom, co-owner of TotallyJewishTravel.com, a kosher and Jewish travel site, says the usual slate of 130 different Passover programs is now down to about 30 for this year due to the pandemic.

Ephraim Nagar, owner of Talia's, a popular kosher restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side, says it is still doing two seatings, indoors and outdoors, for Saturday and Sunday evenings’ seders, but operating at only 50 percent capacity per New York state regulations.

Continued concerns about COVID-19 transmission mean many people will stick with a fully virtual holiday this year.

Andrew Silow-Carroll, 60, editor of The New York Jewish Week, and his wife, Sharon, also had Zoom seders in 2020, with just the two of them and their daughter at home. On the other side of the computer were family and friends from New Jersey, Texas, Pennsylvania and California.

Like Skolnik, the couple personalize the holiday, and they used technology to their advantage. Pre-holiday via Zoom, Sharon taught their son in San Diego to make brisket, a centerpiece of the seder meal, so he'd be eating the same food as the family at home in Teaneck, New Jersey.

As someone who regularly attends synagogue and Shabbat meals via Zoom, Andrew says he feels that the virtual gathering is “a pretty good replication of real life. We still have an experience that can be familial and spiritual and all the things it should be.” But he admits that when you can't actually share each other's foods on Passover, there's something missing: “It's a ritual event but also a culinary event.”

This year, the Silow-Carrolls are hosting online seders. “We're wary until we hit herd immunity,” Andrew says.

So, when the family opens the door for the annual invition to the prophet Elijah, Andrew says, “we ask that he be masked.” It's a Passover tradition to leave a cup of wine for Elijah, known as a peacemaker, and open the door for him to enter.

For Safer and her husband Zwilsky in Palm Springs, their vaccinated status has them ready to celebrate. Zwilsky, a Holocaust survivor, is looking forward to sitting at the head of the table and running the seder. The couple wants to share their traditions with the new people coming into their lives, including the boyfriends who are not Jewish who will be attending their seder. Passing along the traditions, they say, is what it's all about.

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