As many Columbia students and faculty place their ornately decorated Seder plates on the kitchen table, recite prayers like the Ma Nishtana with their family, and eat foods like matzo and charoset, there is an atypical, surreal aura surrounding Passover this year. As the Columbia community fans across the globe in light of the coronavirus pandemic, flights are canceled and families are Zoom-ed into the dinner table, Columbia students’ families are keeping traditions alive during Passover.
Passover, a weeklong Jewish holiday alternatively known as Pesach and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, began on Wednesday night, mere hours before the number of coronavirus cases in the United States surpassed 450,000.
Prior to Passover, Jews are commanded to remove any “chametz,” or leavened foods like bread, from their homes, and many opt to donate chametz or to ritually burn it. For eight days in the United States, Jews abstain from eating leavened products and instead eat an unleavened flatbread called matzo.
Passover customs vary significantly from family to family and within different sects of the Jewish community. Many of these variations can also be seen in the food that is traditionally prepared for Passover.
For example, Ashkenazi Jews, who originated in Eastern Europe, traditionally do not consume “kitniyot,” which includes ingredients like rice and legumes. On the other hand, Sephardic Jews, who originated in Spain and Portugal, often consume kitniyot. Additionally, each family also has its own recipes for essential Passover dishes that date back hundreds of years.
For Gabe Pont, GS/JTS ‘20, whose family is Ashkenazi, classic Passover dishes include matzo ball soup; homemade potato kugel, a baked potato casserole; and gefilte fish, a poached mixture of ground deboned fish. His family also prepares charoset, a sweet paste made from fruit, walnuts, and cinnamon. According to Pont, charoset symbolizes the mortar that the Israelites would use when they were enslaved to build structures for their Egyptian taskmasters.
“It's supposed to symbolize the epitome of slavery and bondage, but in reality when we taste it, it's really delicious, and we eat it for days after the seder," Pont said.
Pont noted how in past years, his family would invite relatives and family friends over for their Seder, yet this year his Seder only consists of his immediate family. However, the Seder still offers him an opportunity to bond with family and think creatively about ways to improve himself, especially during this pandemic.
“I am really moved by the theme of redemption and liberation, especially during this time in our history when sometimes it feels like we are bound down in certain respects,” Pont said. “Passover is the time when we can break these chains."
But as families continue to celebrate as they have for years, there are also many changes to the ways that Passover is being celebrated this year. Joining many Jewish families at their Seder, the traditional ritual service and ceremonial dinner that ushers in Passover, are laptops for Zoom and Google Hangouts calls with relatives as close as down the block and as far as Jerusalem.
Although technology is usually forbidden at the Seder, Jewish families across the country are incorporating video conferencing tools into their observance, whether communicating with family on Zoom or attending virtual services in order to combat the effects of social distancing and stay-at-home regulations that prevent families from celebrating together.
In order to connect with relatives in Israel and Cape Town, Alyx Bernstein, BC/JTS ’23, held a Zoom Seder with her family in addition to performing Passover rituals throughout the day.
“This is a really unique opportunity to reflect and say this is a moment of hardship for us and how can we better empathize with our ancestors because of that,” Bernstein said. “How can we use this as a moment of connection rather than disconnection?"
For her family, which comes from Sephardic roots, dishes like leek fritters and Huevos Haminados, a dish of braised eggs, are common at the Seders. Instead of horseradish, which is common in other traditions, Bernstein’s family uses lettuce for “maror,” or bitter herbs. Additionally, Bernstein’s family sings songs and prayers in Ladino,] or Judaeo-Spanish.
"It’s a holiday of liberation. So many of the commandments and tenants of what makes Judaism Judaism are explicitly linked to the holiday because you remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and this is the holiday where you relive that past and reenact it through ritual,” Bernstein said.
Despite many regional and cultural differences in Seder fare, all dishes are part of the ritual process that makes Passover so integral to the Jewish identity.
Noa Kolomer, director of Israel engagement at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel, had to cancel her flight to Israel this year for her family’s Passover Seder. Instead, she created an abridged-highlights version of her favorite parts of the Seder over Zoom so that her family in Israel, Germany, and Vancouver could all participate. Included in these highlights is a puppet show about the ten plagues from the Book of Exodus and chants from the Haggadah.
"I always cherish Passover as a time I could see my family. My grandparents are 95, and we don't know how many more Passovers we'll have with them,” Kolomer said. “I think the reality that we're all living in right now is allowing me to think creatively down the line. If I won't be able to get on a plane all the time to visit my family, how can I still find ways of being there and feel connected with my family?"
Kolomer, who was born and raised in Israel, noted how in addition to an Ashkenazi-style Seder, she would vacation around the country with her family for three days to celebrate the holiday. Typically, her family prepares a variation of gefilte fish that uses chicken instead of carp or whitefish. According to Kolomer, her grandparents lacked access to fresh fish in Romania, so they used chicken prepared in onion water instead.
In addition to Zoom Seders, Jewish communities in the United States have discouraged traditions like the burning of chametz during the quarantine because of social distancing. The Rabbinical Assembly has also outlined new recommendations, for example, replacing components of the Seder plate, like the shank bone and egg, with a roasted beet and rice if the traditional items are not available during the pandemic.
For seniors who would be celebrating Passover on campus with friends and Hillel faculty, the themes of community and redirection are particularly pertinent.
“A big theme of Passover is leaving this place that you know and journeying into the physical … and the metaphorical wilderness,” Pont said. “Being a graduating senior looking for jobs, that theme of Passover of setting off and journeying into the unknown is definitely something I’m connecting with right now.”