A strange scene played out in so many Jewish homes around the world last Wednesday night, Apr. 8. Families were forced to conduct their seders by video conferencing instead of sharing in the festive meal side-by-side.
I should say that Passover is my favorite holiday. Every year, I look forward to relatives gathering from out of town, reading from our family Haggadah, singing traditional songs (along with “Les Miz”) and, of course, the food.
It’s because I love this holiday so much that I was not optimistic about a “virtual” seder. I thought it would be a disheartening event as it would underscore our abounding sense of separation and isolation.
How wrong I was! For me, our family’s socially distanced seder was an uplifting and emotionally fulfilling evening.
Why? Three important reasons:
- It was so utterly intentional. How often are family holidays an exercise in rote behavior? So-and-so hosts the dinner. We show up. We go around and say some stuff. We get a little tipsy. “See you next year.” That’s it. Last week, every participant had to push far outside the norm to rethink the way a family holiday is conducted (particularly the older generation), from the technology to the Haggadah, even to the way we hid and found the afikomen. It took new levels of creativity and imagination. It took a collective effort. It underscored our family’s shared commitment to values like tradition and continuity.
- The video conferencing medium requires powerful focus. Sometimes, I feel like participants are only half paying attention at the seder. There are side conversations and laughter. People are hungry and waiting to get to the food. But at the seder last week, none of that was evident. In order to follow along in a Zoom conference, everyone needed to keep their mouths shut in order to hear the speaker. We spoke when it was our turn, and we listened intently when it was not. Furthermore, because some people don’t have great Internet connections or microphones, participants had to listen extra carefully to make sure they understood what was being said. Everyone was incredibly present.
- Perhaps the most important difference for me was that the words and metaphors of the Passover story were infused with (even) more relevance to our own lives than usual. Last week, we were not just reciting a story about a people’s enslavement and exodus to freedom. We were exploring our own feelings of captivity and imagining a time again in the future when we will be “free.” We contemporized readings and explored their relevance today. One family member at our seder, a doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, spoke about the heroism he sees every day and the challenges that still remain ahead. Instead of giving the kids money for finding the middle matzoh, a donation was made to a local charity in their names. The story we were telling was our own story.
I do believe that next year’s seder will again be in person. I’m very much looking forward to that. But I know that I’ll appreciate our physical togetherness all the more for having gone through this experience.
Rich Polt helps families celebrate, preserve, and share their legacies. After a 25-year public relations career, Rich launched Acknowledge Media (http://www.acknowledgemedia.com), which produces documentary-style life story films, built upon recorded conversations with loved ones.