A seat at a table — a seder in the time of coronavirus

A seat at a table — a seder in the time of coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to manage our lives and discover positive perspectives in a new reality. That’s not an easy task, to be sure.

That push toward positivity contrasts with the regrettable fact that I have been placed in the “elderly widow” category. My regret stems not from the desire to remain healthy and safe and connected, which I very much want, but from my own personal dislike of being defined as elderly. The “middle-aged” category sounds like a more flexible group, one that suits me better. And so with this virus continuing to weasel its way into our lives and our bodies and our hopes and dreams, all of us flexible “middle-aged” wannabes must be open to changed plans and creative possibilities.

I cancelled my March 25th flight to Israel. It’s for the best, I told my two Israeli daughters, who also had been rethinking the wisdom of my flying. We all agreed that there will be many more sedarim together, please God. Being home for Pesach generally meant that my daughter and her family from Massachusetts would join me; no, that was not going to happen. My 81-year-old brother and his wife, who live in Arizona, always travel to me when I do not go to Israel for the chag; no, that absolutely was not going to happen. My son and daughter-in-law live four houses up the block. Both of them are dedicated New York nurses, and yes, being far away from them and their daughters most definitely had to happen. And to complete the picture, I was not going to be alone only for the sedarim and the holiday, I would be doing all the preparatory work on my own. Four weeks ago, my cleaning help told me she was afraid — and rightfully so — to come to Teaneck.

Tzivia Bieler

I tried to stay upbeat. I listened to a lecture about how best to handle things when you are alone at the seder. It didn’t seem to offer much help for me. And then I wondered: “If the weather is nice the first night of Pesach,” I told my son, “I could just stand by your dining room window with the window half open for a little bit. Listening to you make kiddush and hearing your youngest daughter singing the Mah Nishtana would make me happy enough to go back to my house and celebrate the rest of the seder alone.” Telling my plan to my good friend on the phone a few days before chag, her response was, “Oh my, I think I’m going to cry.” And texting what I thought was a creative idea to one of my nieces in Chicago, I received the following response: “Oh my gosh; that might be the saddest thing I have heard so far. I’m so sorry.” But I can be that middle-aged flexible woman, and I was not dissuaded. And my son thought it was a great idea, and he took it to a whole other level.

My son’s front dining room window is built above the basement well, which would have made standing or sitting there difficult. The side of the house, however, is quite near the garbage cans, and it also has a dining room window, and that was where his plan unfolded. He took one of the garbage cans, put a block of some sort of concrete on top, and covered it with a tablecloth. On this makeshift table, he placed a large three-sided lantern that he had bought when our block lost electricity for 10 days during Hurricane Sandy. He added a mask and Purell if needed. He also found a high-backed chair that would allow me to sit comfortably in front of the open screened window. The evening weather was cool and pleasant, the sky was clear, and my place of honor was ready for me.

I sat down at the half opened window and unpacked my wine cup and plate, my salt water and karpas, a small pillow, a napkin, and my Haggadah. The garbage cans to my right that my son had not transformed into tables, the long tangled water hose on the ground (at first reminding me of snakes in the dark!) to my left, and the possibility of some animal — squirrel, chipmunk, hedgehog, deer — joining me all faded in the background. I was sitting, in effect, at my son’s seder, participating, reading out loud, singing, laughing, discussing, savoring my granddaughters’ responses and puppet show telling the story of Moshe. I only went home to perform the mitzvot of Rachtzah, Motzi Matzah, Maror, Korech, Shulchan Orech, and Birkat Hamazon. I hoped this was acceptable, but I recalled that the lecturer I listened to before the chag suggested making changes that worked to make a lonely seder become a meaningful seder. This worked.

The setting for a socially distant seder.

I returned to my seat of honor, sitting back while my grandchildren searched for the afikomen. Sukkot was mixing with my Pesach, and my seder was being redefined in a way that I never would have expected. It seems appropriate — here I was celebrating my ancestors leaving Egypt. After they left, they lived outside, in the desert, without safe walls but with the certainty that Hashem was watching over them. I felt that same certainty.

“What are you looking at?” my son asked as he saw me looking to my left. “Some remarkable stars,” I answered. And about half an hour later, he asked the same question when noticing me looking up to the right. “The most amazing, bright, large, full moon,” I responded. Seems perfect, I thought, that the moon was part of my seder, for the celestial body that guides our nights and days was guiding me that night, brightening the way and redefining this experience.

How blessed I was to sit outside and marvel at Hashem’s wonders while celebrating with my family sitting inside — such a unique and memorable moment. And in all my 72 middle-aged flexible years, that is a seder I have never experienced before.

Tzivia Bieler and her late husband, Bruno, moved to Teaneck in January 1974. She retired two years ago as the executive office director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Retirement brings her pleasure, and more time to spend with children and grandchildren in United States and Israel.