On the afternoon before their Passover Seder last spring, Liz Alpern and Shira Kline’s Brooklyn garden apartment was crowded with furniture that the couple had gathered for the evening ahead. A giant bowl of mole sat out on the counter, while in the fridge, packets of lamb stew meat were Jenga-stacked next to containers of homemade gefilte fish. Kline and Alpern, who co-owns the artisan Jewish food company the Gefilteria, had been planning the event for months. Invitations had been sent out seven weeks in advance, and 27 people would be joining them that evening. It was the first time, says Alpern, that “all of these different sides of these families were in the same place.”
That Seder was a success. And so this year, the plan was to go even bigger, with 28 people. But in late March, two weeks before the holiday, Kline and Alpern were still sorting out their Passover plans. “I think there’s this part of me, maybe unrealistically, that thinks that there will be some solution in which some of us can be together in person,” Alpern said at the time. “Whether that’s being in a giant room together [where] we’re six feet apart or whether that’s doing something outside.”
Alpern and Kline weren’t alone in the uncertainty of their last-minute planning. This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to interrupt every aspect of daily life, Jews across the country are scrambling to remake tradition in time for Passover Seder, an elaborate dinner hosted on the first and — outside of Israel — second nights of the holiday, which this year begins on April 8. The ritual, which is sometimes referred to as Jewish Thanksgiving, is often cited as the most widely observed Jewish custom. During the meal, the story of the Exodus is retold, freedom is celebrated, and a matzo-fueled feast is served to the family and friends, both Jewish and not, who gather around the dinner table.
“By definition, Passover is about family coming together,” Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen co-owner Evan Bloom says. “The thing that makes this crisis and this Passover unique is that despite needing to come together, we can’t.”
That is particularly true for traditionally observant Jews, who abstain from using electricity during part of the holiday and thus won’t have the option to celebrate together virtually. But less traditionally observant Jews are using Zoom and other platforms to connect with loved ones in different cities and neighbors across the hall. Passover kits have been hawked online by the likes of Wise Sons, Oh! Nuts, and Chabad, and made by parents to be shipped to their offspring. Some people are rewriting their Passover menus, swapping traditional large-format dishes like brisket for simpler recipes and even takeout.
For Francine Cohen, the Seder meal will take the form of a socially distant potluck with a handful of neighbors in her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment building. One neighbor is handling the matzo ball soup, and another a green vegetable, while Cohen herself will prepare her grandmother’s brisket with apricots and prunes. The dishes will be portioned, packed up, and left at each neighbor’s doorstep on the morning of the meal. In the evening, everyone will sit down and connect for a Seder on Zoom.
The plans for the building’s Seders, which will likely take place both nights, were hatched in late March when a 60-something neighbor told Cohen she was craving human connection. With this arrangement, Cohen explains, “neighbors will not be without a way to celebrate Passover with other humans.”
Justin Feldstein says that his family’s plan for a Zoom Seder means that he doesn’t have an excuse not to show up. In recent years, Feldstein, who grew up on Long Island and now lives in Boston with his fiancée, hasn’t been able to get back to Long Island to attend his family’s mid-week celebration, which is overseen by his 90-year-old grandmother. But even though Zoom means their attendance is certain, their menu remains a question: While New York-based family members will receive care packages of matzo ball soup, stuffed cabbage rolls, and mandlebread that Feldstein’s grandmother made and froze before the pandemic hit the U.S., Feldstein himself lives out of the delivery range. After asking himself what an “appropriate” meal would be for the occasion, he settled on Chinese food. “At least there’s no leavened bread that I know of,” he says. “And I’ll stay away from moo shoo pancakes.”
In keeping with tradition, the family’s dinner will include a discussion of the 10 plagues, a central part of Seder. This year, it will have a timely spin. During a phone call with his grandmother, Feldstein recalls that she said, “Now we just have two plagues: the first being Trump and the second being the virus.”
In 2020, the script for a modernized, darkly humorous Passover text seems to write itself. Consider the case of Gal Beckerman, a New York Times Book Review editor who flew to Southern California with his wife and kids in order to be closer to his parents and sister. Their 14-day quarantine at a house next door to Beckerman’s parents is scheduled to end on the eve of Passover. “It’s a weird serendipity,” Beckerman says. “We’ve joked that it’s not just the freedom of the Jews from slavery, it’s our freedom from this house that we’ve been stuck in.” When the quarantine ends, they will walk next door for a family Seder.
Back in Brooklyn, Celia Muller, a media lawyer, has found that the Passover holiday tradition and her Jewish heritage have offered a sense of grounding during the pandemic. In recent weeks, she’s been “thinking about the fact that if it weren’t for a whole ton of perseverance from the time of Exodus down till now... I would not be here,” she says. “I’m drawing on that strength of the past. So to me, it became really important to have Seder.”
Muller is planning to host a second-night Zoom Seder where she will use a card deck version of the Haggadah, the book that guides the evening’s festivities. In her emails to attendees (full disclosure: myself included), she attached cards for each guest and wrote, “The Haggadah we’re using explicitly contemplates a soup/salad break, so definitely have some nosh on hand even if you don’t go for matzo ball soup.” She offered snack suggestions including gefilte fish—“(shhh some of us like it)”—and links to a few recipe possibilities for the meal.
Muller also reminded her friends of the elements of the Seder plate, which sits at the center of the Seder ritual. An edible guide to the evening’s retelling of the story of the Exodus, it includes an egg, a roasted lamb shank, bitter herbs, and a sweet paste made from fruit and nuts called charoset, along with other edible symbols. For participants who can’t or don’t want to track down the items, Muller says, “I will make sure that I have everything and everyone can participate symbolically.”
And for those who don’t relish the prospect of trying to source Passover ingredients, there is the Passover kit. In New York, La Newyorkina owner Fany Gerson has been selling Mexican Passover meals whose options include Mexican-style gefilte fish and matzo ball soup, roasted carrots with harissa, brisket tamales, and flourless chocolate chipotle cake. Over in the San Francisco Bay Area, Wise Sons is selling kits with “everything you need on the Passover [Seder] plate but the plate,” Bloom says. They include candlesticks and a full meal including brisket, matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, and chopped liver; the Haggadah that Wise Sons uses at its annual Seder at the Contemporary Jewish Museum will be available for free online.
Passover kits also ensure that Seder hosts won’t miss any of the essentials, particularly matzo, which was rumored to be sold out weeks before the holiday. “Retailers were calling, frantic, three weeks ago — everything got wiped out,” says Aaron Gross, the owner of Streit’s, a 95-year-old matzo manufacturer that produces some 2 million boxes of matzo each Passover from its factory outside of New York City. But now, he adds, some of those retailers are calling and saying they no longer need those orders.
Even without a shortage of matzo, some are planning to make their own. Before California’s shelter-in-place order went into effect, Vicky Zeamer, a design researcher in San Francisco, tried to find yeast but found that stores were already sold out. She recalls thinking, “Oh my gosh, how am I going to make bread without yeast?” And then she realized that bread without leavening is the definition of matzo. “Between [the lack of yeast] and the plague, it’s feeling too much like Passover,” she quips. Although Zeamer isn’t planning on joining a Seder, she may watch the 1995 cartoon episode “A Rugrats Passover,” which is considered a childhood touchpoint for many millennial Jews.
Across the country in Brooklyn, Alpern and Kline are also planning to bake matzo. A week before the start of Passover, the couple had settled on hosting a Seder using the platform Seder2020. They’ve invited a large group of family “and a few of my friends who couldn’t have fit in my house,” Alpern says. This year, there will still be a big Seder and a busy kitchen, but the living room won’t be full of furniture. Instead, it will be crowded with voices, beamed in from Passover tables near and far.
Devra Ferst is a Brooklyn-based food and travel writer. Follow her on Instagram @dferst.