In the early 90s, the Dalai Lama invited a delegation of rabbis from various denominations and other Jewish intellectuals to visit him in India. He and his followers had been driven from Tibet into exile by the Chinese Communist government and were struggling with questions of how a people can survive being uprooted from their homeland. This was a subject that Jews knew something about; they had been at it for two thousand years and the Dalai Lama was eager to learn from them. Roger Kamenetz in his best-selling book The Jew in the Lotus, published in 1994, tells the story of this strange encounter between Judaism and Buddhism.
There’s a lot more to the book than the piece I’m about to focus on, but I think you’ll see why Kamenetz’s account has resurfaced for me at this moment. In learning about the practices Jews had adopted in exile, one that was of particular interest to the Dalai Lama was the central role of home-based rituals and traditions, conducted in family units, not linked to the temple or synagogue. Most prominent of those was the Passover Seder. Although in recent times many synagogues have hosted large communal Seders, the rituals of the Seder are designed to be carried out at home. It’s hard to find many similar examples in other religions. To be sure for other religions there are lots of occasions for celebratory eating on festivals and holidays, but few that have a full agenda of religious practice attached to them, as spelled out in the Passover Haggadah. Apparently, the Dalai Lama saw in this home-based religious practice a possible tool for survival.
More Jews, both in the US and Israel, celebrate Passover in some fashion than any other holiday. Tap any Jew on the shoulder and they will regale you with memories of Seders in their childhood homes, the unique spin their families created on how they told the story of the Jews’ liberation from bondage in Egypt. And, of course, the agonizing, endless wait for the food, a meal different from all other nights. Jews like to joke that all their holidays are constructed around the same template: they tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.
So, among the many terrible losses inflicted on us by Covid-19, the fact that families will not be gathering for the Seder this year carries its own special pain. There’s no doubt that the President’s now abandoned delusional plan to fill the churches on Easter Sunday invoked for many Christians rich memories of holiday clothing, family gatherings, parades and Easter egg hunts, but for Jews this dining room-based holiday attaches us to our history and to our commitment to social justice. The liberation from slavery, such a central event in that history, is the reason Passover has spawned endless texts – Haggadot – connecting the Seder to civil rights, labor organizing, feminism, the environment, LGBTQ issues, on and on. It’s not the same as hearing sermons on these subjects in synagogue. Initiating children into our history and values in this sensually rich setting carries a punch that large institutional settings, useful for other purposes, just can’t match.
So, how sad it is for me to be preparing for Wednesday evening’s virtual Seder. These recent days have been taken up with trying to master the technology that will enable friends and family to connect with us as my wife and I sit alone in front of our computer, turning the camera away from us occasionally to showcase the various symbols of the holiday arrayed on the card table that will replace our expansive dining room table – the candles, the matzo, the Seder plate containing the shank bone, the egg, the bitter herbs, the horseradish root, each carrying a symbolic message relating to the Passover story.
I also needed to find a Haggadah online that people scattered from New York to Tel-Aviv could download as a common text. The regulars at our Seder table are accustomed to finding at their places a copy of the Maxwell House Haggadah which have with us for decades. They’re frayed and wine-stained; many of them have shed their covers. The illustrations and the translations are undistinguished to say the least, but by now they are a part of the family. I will keep my copy next to the computer to maintain that historical link because, after all, what is this holiday about besides history. The online text we’re using is actually more engaging, but it’s an interloper, lacking the stamp of tradition. One more emotional hurdle to overcome.
We will be alone as our granddaughter in her house in Columbia, Maryland recites the Four Questions and, as her cantor father leads us in singing which under normal circumstances binds those at the table together, the music will fragment into a cacophony that only people who have tried to sing together on Zoom will recognize. At past Seders, everyone who joins our table brings something to contribute that speaks to the themes of the evening – a poem, an article, a song, a work of art. Zoom will allow us to preserve that tradition, although the feel of it will not be the same as when we’re sitting shoulder-shoulder around the table breathing their words in at the kind of close quarters that now strike terror in us. The handwashing rituals and the story of the ten plagues inflicted on the Egyptians whose Pharaoh would not release us from slavery have a special resonance this year, but their impact will be tempered by our inability to actually enact those ceremonies together.
So, there’s a lot of sadness surrounding this year’s Seder as we prepare to eat the bread of affliction, a sadness reinforced by the tragedy of the Grand Plague that has engulfed us all. For those of us who have an unknown number of Seders left on our dance card, it’s particularly sad to be deprived of the fullness of this one. Yet, there is much to be grateful for. There is food in abundance, even though the meal we prepare for just the two of us will be a pale shadow of the meal we look forward to preparing for a table of 15. Lots of corner cutting there. We will be able to see the dear faces of the people who would normally be with us. We can still fulfill the obligation to tell the story of our liberation, as every generation before us has and we can pray together that one day we will be liberated from this bondage too.