When it comes to Jewish festivals, Pesach (Passover) has always been the highlight of my calendar. My family has never been particularly interested in religion – we’re the kind of Jews who have a synagogue that we don’t go to, and we are firmly agnostic, if not actually atheist, when it comes to belief in a higher power.
But the Seder, which takes place tonight, is a family institution. It is a ritual meal that marks the start of Pesach. It celebrates Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt, as told in Exodus, it is a festival about history, about liberation, and about hope.
The story is well-known, thanks to the Prince of Egypt film. The Jews were slaves under Pharaoh in Egypt, who decreed that every Jewish baby boy should be murdered, to prevent an uprising. To save her son’s life, Moses’ mother sent him down the Nile in a basket, where he washed up at Pharaoh’s palace and was adopted into the royal family.
Years later, the adult Moses finally discovers who he is, flees, and is sent a message by God that it is his destiny to liberate his people. He returns, demanding that Pharaoh “let my people go”. When Pharaoh refuses, God inflicts ten plagues upon the Egyptians via Moses, the last of which is the death of every Egyptian first-born son. Pharaoh finally relents, and the Jews flee their oppressors.
This story, and the centuries of scholarship that surround it, is recounted every year at the Seder. For non-Jews, think of the Seder as a kind of Christmas dinner crossed with the Easter Sunday Church service, only in your own home.
There are strange foods that must be eaten: matzoh to symbolise the unleavened bread that didn’t have time to rise when the Jews fled Egypt in a hurry; bitter herbs, to symbolise their suffering as slaves; salt water, to symbolise their tears; a sweet paste of chopped apples and nuts, to symbolise the mortar used to build the Pharaoh’s pyramids. Drinking at least four glasses of wine is obligatory.
It’s a religious service, conducted without a religious leader, with all family members chipping in (often in Hebrew as well as English) to tell parts of the story. Children have a central role, asking certain key questions: namely, why is this night different from all other nights?
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of drifting off on someone’s lap as the Seder continued late into the night, lulled to sleep by songs in a language I didn’t understand but grew to absorb.
Every family has its own Seder traditions. In ours, the general theme is go big or go home. Guests are invited from across our network of extended family and friends, meaning we usually have at around 30 people to dinner. We don’t scour our house and get rid of all wheat products, as observant Jews do, but preparations begin a week in advance, and involve peeling what feels like hundreds of potatoes and rolling endless knaidlach (matzoh dumplings) to go in the chicken soup.
The menu, beyond the foods prescribed in the holy texts, has barely changed in three decades and is eight courses long. Small children run around the table playing with toy frogs and locusts – two of the ten plagues visited on the Egyptians.
Someone always spills red wine on the white tablecloth that is hastily swamped in salt. At one point, adopting a tradition originating among Sephardic Jews in Iran and Afghanistan, we hit each other with spring onions, as a metaphor for the whips of the Egyptian slave masters.
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Being introduced into the extravaganza is a rite of passage for non-Jewish partners. How a new boyfriend or girlfriend copes with the intensity of it all is taken as a sign of how long the relationship will last.
This year, of course, is different. A festival that revolves around extended families sharing a huge meal in a crowded room does not fit well with the age of social distancing. Many of the special foods aren’t available as supermarkets target their product lines towards essentials. And even if they were, cooking eight courses for just a few people doesn’t feel worth it.
But the Jewish tradition is all about adapting to circumstance. For some, this year will be a Zoom Seder, telling the story of our departure from Egypt via conference call. For others, for whom going through the motions via a screen just doesn’t feel right, Pesach will be marked by a period of quiet reflection.
I am currently staying with my parents, and we will put together a makeshift Seder Plate, switching in alternatives for the foods we can’t find. My cousin and her children are making theirs out of playdoh. We plan to check in via Zoom, including family in Australia, and pick our favourite bits. Singing will feature heavily; God, less so.
But just as every Seder follows its own rules, so every family will be adapting to lockdown in their own way. We asked some of our readers, along with familiar names from the worlds of politics, media and sport, what they would usually be doing, and how this year they were celebrating a night that is different from all other nights.
Hugo Rifkind, columnist for The Times
I love a Seder. Always have. As a child in Edinburgh we’d gather at my aunt and uncle’s house, as big a family as we could muster, and sing songs into the night, much to the confusion of the neighbours. I was always the youngest so I always had to sing Ma Nishtana, the song about why this night is different from all others.
When I first heard of the concept of “oral traditions”, I immediately understood it in the context of Pesach. We have our songs and our tunes; other families have others. Nobody ever says, everybody just knows.
One universal is the phrase – half a blessing, half a toast – that you say at the end: “L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim”. Next year in Jerusalem. It doesn’t, literally, mean that this is where you want to be next year. It’s a prayer for better times. It’s about hope.
I’m an adult now, and irreligious. My wife isn’t Jewish and my kids haven’t decided yet. And yet, Pesach is still an umbilical link to family and faith. When we can, we spend it with Orthodox cousins up in Even More North London, touched to still be in their embrace. My kids know about Moses leading their forbears out of Egypt, and how that relates, philosophically, to every attack on the Jews there has ever been. They know why this night is different from all other nights.
As the potted description of most Jewish festivals goes, “they tried to kill us, we’re still here, let’s eat”.
This year, obviously, that’s not an option. For people who live their faith, viscerally, the loss of an extended family Seder is a hammer blow. For us, it’s just damn sad. Still, we have plans, and we have a box of matzoh which my wife got from the Sainsbury’s delivery three weeks ago. I have the ingredients for chicken soup and knaidlach, and I have an account on Skype.
My Orthodox relatives will be out of contact, because they don’t use tech on a holy day, but my dad and my sister and her boys will be dialling in. I think Ma Nishtana will be my problem again, but I’ll see if I can bully all the kids to join in. It won’t be normal, but it will be something, and best of all I only need to cook for four.
Something is still trying to kill us, we’re still here, let’s still eat. Next year in Jerusalem.
Charlotte Henry, journalist and author
“Why is this night different from all other nights?” is the refrain during a key part of the Seder service. Tonight, the answer will be clear.
Normally, I celebrate with a wonderful, noisy, rabble of sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. We read through the story of the exodus from Egypt from the books our grandparents gave us as children. We cheer as we get to the declaration that “the meal is now served”.
Tonight, we will try and join together over Zoom to sing a song or say a prayer, but it won’t be the same.
Let us hope that this night is different from all other nights and we can once again enjoy the Seder all together.
Ivan Lewis, former cabinet minister and MP
Seder night has always been a special time in the Lewis calendar. It conjures up warm memories of family, tradition, faith and freedom. The sheer joy of listening to children saying the Ma Nishtana for the first time and the less happy rows in the teenage years when no one wants to be the youngest in the family!
This year will definitely be different than any other year. Coronavirus has made sure of that.
I will be cleaning my own flat to remove all trace of wheat type products, changing my own plates, and recounting the miraculous story of Jewish emancipation alone.
It will be sad not being with family and friends. But it provides an opportunity to connect in a spiritual way free of any distraction. An elderly lady of faith who will be alone this Seder night told a friend she was excited because this year it would just be her and God. What an uplifting way of turning an apparent negative into a positive.
As like many others I sit down alone on this unique Seder nights I will take comfort from that lady’s wisdom and faith.
Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle
I’m not observant, but the Seder is one of the rituals that even secular Jews tend to enjoy, because it’s such a family occasion.
This year will be truly bizarre as I am “shielding” in my room. So while my wife and kids have their own sparse and Spartan Seder downstairs, I will be in my room.
Yes, we could Zoom. But in all honesty, this year none of the Pollards have much interest in Passover. We are too worried about friends and relatives with Covid-19 and mourning those we know who have died.
For some, religion and tradition are wonderful supports during times of trouble. I’ve never found that, and I find myself even less interested in it at the moment.
Joe Jacobson, professional footballer for Wycombe Wanderers and former captain of the Wales U21 team
Depending on work commitments, I would normally either go back home to Cardiff where most of my family live and we always have a big Seder night. I have cousins with young children so it’s good fun for them. When my grandpa was alive, he would always change the word “Egypt” to “egg white” for some reason for the whole evening. And Egypt gets mentioned a lot. It would be funny at first then just get annoying after a while.
If I can’t get back home, I have some family close by who always invite my wife and I round. It’s nice that these festivals give us an opportunity to be able to see people that you don’t see too often.
This year, we have been invited to a couple of Zoom Seder nights. My auntie in Cardiff always puts on a huge evening and invite everyone and anyone to come – Jewish or not. She is hosting the evening and she’s trying to get us all to join in and read part of the story.
I will be at home with my wife, and we will probably just have a normal meal but with a few of the traditions involved: the wine, matzoh, and as much of the Seder plate as I can do. There’s always a way to interact with families at this time and that’s how we will do it.
Ruth Smeeth, former MP and Parliamentary Chair of the Jewish Labour Movement
I usually host a Seder night at home for my friends and family. It’s always a little unconventional, but a lovely opportunity to feed people and catch up.
This year will be FaceTime with my mum and step-dad. I’ll be attempting to make gooey cinnamon balls (a Pesach favourite, as well as eat my weight in matzoh).
Chag Pesach Sameach (happy Passover) to you and yours this very strange Pesach.
Simon Rothstein, PR and social media consultant and former national newspaper journalist
Pesach in my family is usually a huge affair. Three generations all together in my parents’ house – telling the story in the same way, singing the same songs, and eating the same food as when my mum and her brother were little. We even make the “pluch” (where you take egg, saltwater, matzoh and whatever else you can find and mix it all together) in the way my late Granddad taught us.
This year will be different.
My children are nine and seven, so we will Zoom with the family but it’s likely to be a short affair – a catch-up, a couple of our favourite songs, and a virtual pluch. Luckily my chicken soup is as good as my mum’s – she taught me everything she knows – so the kids won’t miss out.
There was an interesting Facebook discussion on how to engage kids in the Pesach story when it’s just your household together. A common suggestion was to watch the Prince of Egypt – so we are going to do that.
At the end of the Seder, we traditionally say “next year in Jerusalem”. I’d just take next year at my mum’s.