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Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images
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My First DIY Passover

I’m unable to join my parents, but I can make it a holiday my daughter will remember

Carly Pildis
April 06, 2020
Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images

“We are not coming home for Passover this year, Mom.”

I say these words in a firm tone, one that belies my disbelief and sadness. I have never missed Passover with my family.

“It’s just not safe, Mom. My husband is not able to work from home, so there is no way to quarantine us, no way for us to be sure we aren’t sick. I’d rather miss Passover with you than kill you.”

In my mind, I am walking with my father through their garden. We walk through the pine trees and rhododendrons, he points out new plants and disparages rabbits. I can hear the kids playing basketball. After a tumultuous year, I have been looking forward to this peace and quiet for months. We had planned on staying the whole week, giving me a rare reprieve. A chance to take a breath in the good clean New England air.

“I am sorry Mom. I really wish we could be there, but it’s just too risky.”

My Mom has been throwing Seders for as long as I can remember. These are large, elaborate affairs with 30 to 40 people. There are briskets, whole turkeys, chickens, and corned beef, endless trays of tzimmes, potato kugel, homemade pickles, and chopped liver made in a hand grinder inherited from my grandfather’s grocery store. Overflowing bowls of matzo ball soup and farfel, tall and stately sponge cakes, three types of mandelbrot, chocolate cakes and endless candies. She cooks for weeks. But not this year.

She pauses on the phone. I hear a deep breath. She tells me she agrees, that it’s the right decision, and she is planning on spending Passover alone with my father.

That night, alone with my husband, I break down crying in his arms. He holds me like one does a small child and strokes my hair. What if we are never all together again? It feels too hopeful to believe we will all be untouched by this plague. We will be together again. He promises. “I know it,” he says. He doesn’t, of course. He merely hopes it. Chooses to believe it. I try to believe, too.

Finally, I fall asleep. And then, in the middle of the night, I wake up in a cold sweat, bolting upright in the dark.

I have to make a Seder. By myself.

No, my husband reminds me. You don’t. I am here.

I’ve hosted Thanksgiving before, but it’s not the same. I don’t have to worry about passing down Thanksgiving to my daughter, about making her understand her place in her people’s foundational story. How do I, who had never cooked a brisket before, handle the challenge? My husband makes a strong cup of black tea and we take out all of my cookbooks. They spool over the couches, a blur of beautiful professional photographs and typed out home recipes on green construction paper. I love cooking and planning meals, so I thought diving into the deep end of recipes would be calming. Instead, it leaves me wrecked with a feeling of inadequacy. I am grieving something I can’t quite name. I have never felt more like a grown-up, thrust into an adulthood that feels empty and dark. I have been training my whole life to be a proper Jewish mother, and yet I feel hopelessly inadequate and small. Like I am wearing my mother’s high heels and pearls with her lipstick smudged on tiny lips. Is this always how motherhood feels?

“Take a day,” my husband suggests. “Be sad today and plan tomorrow.”

The next day, while our daughter sleeps in our bed, where she has taken up residence since her school closed, we try again. We take a blank sheet of paper, and ask: What makes a Seder to us? What does it mean for the three of us to celebrate Passover?

We agree on a few core values for this year. We want the Seders to be fun and engaging for our daughter. We want it to be delicious and to taste like home. In the midst of all of this darkness and grief, when the only certainty is that more grief is coming soon, we want our Seder to be a celebration that our whole family can enjoy.

That means no marathon of Hebrew reading, no endless commentary from rabbis who assumed we already knew the story of Exodus. We want it to be age-appropriate, so we are not going to talk so much about slavery, drowning babies, or plagues. We will lean into ritual and celebration. We will do each of the 15 steps, put out a giant plate of karpas (mini cucumbers, broccoli, and more traditional parsley and romaine), and let her munch the whole time. We will focus on singing, storytelling, ritual, and joy. We will start at 4 p.m. and try to keep it to 45 minutes before dinner. I’ll have printed out coloring books from Chabad on hand. We will play hide and seek with the afikoman. We’ll likely do Elijah’s cup in pajamas. We will call my parents for Dayenu. This year is a hardship, but it is also an opportunity to make this ancient tradition our own.

This year is different than any other year. For my family and for yours.

How is this year different than any other year? How is this night really different than every other Seder night?

Instead of pushing our daughter to be a big girl at the table, we will change the table to engage her. She is one-third of the Seder after all.

This year is different from other years because my husband is doing the Pesach cleaning. He is worried about me, overwhelmed with a new job, homeschooling, mothering. He doesn’t speak Hebrew, but he’s studied halacha and he can wield a sponge. This year is different because I said thank you, instead of no way. In times of great struggle, we can be surprised and moved by how those closest to us decide to show up for us.

This year, we aren’t throwing away any food. It feels wrong to throw out food when so many people in our city are hungry and out of work, and when there is concern about items going out of stock. We decide for this year we will tape up unopened food we stocked up on and put it in the basement. We “sold” it to a friend for a dollar, he’ll “sell it back” the day after Passover.

This year the food will be different. My mother will cook for two instead of 40. We all need to find a way to make a holiday in difficult circumstances. We have all been humbled by this. It is more than reasonable, this year of all years, to have a catered kosher dinner. To skip some normally required dish. Whatever helps you fulfill the obligations of the holiday and brings you some joy. Cooking brings me joy, as do the tastes of home. After many hours and some tears, I find myself looking at a menu that fills my heart with happiness. Matzo ball soup. Braised brisket. Herb-roasted turkey legs that call to mind my mother’s whole turkey. A modernized crispy potato kugel with fried shallots. Roasted beets. My mom’s sponge cake with strawberries. Matzo toffee with chocolate.

This year, we are really struggling to make the holiday happen—and that makes it even more meaningful.

These are trying times. Joy is so fleeting and the grief and looming dread of this moment are so vast. I want to be with my family for Passover and I feel deeply pained that I cannot be. My father admits to a deep sadness when boxes of kosher meat begin to arrive. My mother, however, tells me she is full of joy. Why, I wonder, isn’t she sad to see the holiday canceled? The meat sitting in the freezer, no need to take down the Passover china?

No, she tells me. She is overjoyed that her children are all keeping kosher for Passover. She is thrilled that we keep calling her, asking about halacha, asking about recipes, asking for tips to keep our kids happy. I am so happy, she tells me—I am so lucky to still be alive, but be able to see that this will outlive me. That I passed it on to all of you.

She is right of course. Unbelievably, planning this saddest of Seders is becoming fun. We are doing this. Our little family is committed to Judaism, and in these dark times, it is a beacon of light. No matter what comes, we are still defined by our love of yiddishkeit. Like centuries of Jews, we are setting aside difficult circumstances and insisting on finding joy, we are keeping the rituals that, in the end, keep us.

Carly Pildis is the Director of Grassroots Organizing for the Jewish Democratic Council of America, and an advocacy professional based in Washington, D.C. Her Twitter feed is @carlypildis, and her website is www.carlypildis.com.

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