Like everything else, Passover is turned on its head
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Like everything else, Passover is turned on its head

Elaine Shizgal Cohen of Teaneck is a retired Jewish educator and an active community volunteer.  She serves on the executive committee of Congregation Beth Sholom and leads Wise Aging groups. 

Many contemporary haggadahs have aspirational titles that entice Jews like me, who seek to discover new meanings in tradition. We’ve long been taught not to judge a book by its cover; however, the inviting names of some editions have motivated me over the years to purchase and collect a full shelf of these books to bring to our family seders. “The Feast of Freedom,” “The Open Door,” “From Oppression to Liberation,” “On the Wings of Freedom,” and “Next Year in a Just World” ring hollow this year, when we are sheltering at home, frightened and confined, living with severe restrictions and limitations on our daily functioning.

Those of us who change over our dishes and cookware for Passover usually have the challenge of riding through the exhaustion of preparing for the demanding observance of this holiday on the night of the first seder. Redemptive pleasure sets in as soon as all the guests and family arrive in high spirits and find their seats around the crowded dining room table. On Wednesday evening, I will arrange one place setting and sit alone with my laptop propped up on a wine bottle, connecting with my loved ones in a first-time Zoom seder.

I’ve made a few decisions that I hope will lessen my sadness at the loss of our annual festive celebration. After weeks of walking around the house with Lysol anti-bacterial spray to disinfect doorknobs, faucets, and counters, I’m doing the minimal special cleaning to get rid of breadcrumbs and bits of crackers that may have lodged in hidden crevices. Living alone, I know where I may have carelessly let them drop from the table in the breakfast room as I was absorbed in the relentless bad news in the morning’s New York Times. I’m practicing self-forgiveness and self-acceptance; whatever and wherever I clean will be good enough. I’ll cook a chicken and a couple of servings of fish to take me through the weekend, and I ordered some prepared food to amplify the basics. Because it is no fun at all to bake for myself, I’ve purchased chocolate-covered nuts and brownies for dessert treats. My daughters, the rabbis, have asked me to lead the second seder. I think that they wanted to give me something to focus on besides feeling bereft and pained that we can’t be together this year. Keeping panic at bay takes work, so it’s a good thing to have a set of tasks to accomplish to get ready for this unwanted, revised embodiment of Passover.

I’m already screaming “dayenu!” (“enough!”), understanding that we’re nowhere near the end of this scary journey. The Israelites did not know how they would cross the sea to safety when they set out en masse and in haste, following their leader, who heard God’s voice commanding them to flee the shackles of slavery. We are stumbling along a path with a curve that portends more suffering ahead, and our leader swerves and fumbles, invoking the Divine with delusional self-congratulations.

“A zissen Peasch” is out of joint in April 2020, but we’ll do what we can to bring some sweetness into this year’s holiday for the grandchildren and for our own sanity. My family is departing from our practice of engaging with multiple haggadahs; we’re downloading and printing the same version, so we can coordinate an ordered reading from our various venues. This year, the titles of two haggadahs resonate poignantly for me: “The Journey Continues” and “Renew Our Days.”

Elaine Shizgal Cohen of Teaneck is a retired Jewish educator and an active community volunteer.  She serves on the executive committee of Congregation Beth Sholom and leads Wise Aging groups. 

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