"It feels like it’s Pesach all the time now,” said my daughter last week, and I had to agree with her.
For although pasta and bread are back on the menu (when we can get them), certain elements of the festival linger on. We are eating lunch and dinner together as a family every single day. There’s a certain “what can I conjure up with eggs and potatoes?” aspect to our diet. The fridge is fuller than usual but lacking certain vital ingredients. And none of us can go out to eat.
I decided in mid-March that this year we would do things differently, that I couldn’t take the stress of a normal Pesach. Normally I am the one driving Pesach in my family, making sure I keep to the standards my mother instilled in me. The house is scoured clean, the Pesach crockery and cutlery emerge from the storage box in the garden and, after a full day of turmoil, are installed in the kitchen. I bark orders here and there — my husband calls me the Pesach Ayatollah. And there’s the eye-wateringly expensive trip to the kosher supermarket to buy provisions.
This year, working from home in lockdown, with no kosher shops nearby, I embraced the idea of a Progressive Pesach and changed many of the rules I’d followed all my life. So we didn’t change over the kitchen. We did eat kitniyot. We kept the kosher shop to a minimum (and thanks to my usual over-buying, it turned out that we had many Pesach staples already in place from 2019…or even before. This was not a year for scrutinising ‘best before’ dates.)
We certainly didn’t bypass the festival altogether. We banished chometz, we ate matzah. In my one and only stockpiling visit to the supermarket on March 9, I bought 10 boxes of matzah and 80 sachets of cat food. I didn’t think of loo roll.
We had one Seder, not two, and we shared it via WhatsApp with my brother (in north London), my niece (in Oxford) and my cousin (in Brighton). We bought a box from Chabad to make sure we had a shankbone and horseradish. Dayenu was a jagged, time-lapsed affair, but we made it through. It was memorable. It was different.
Meanwhile, in isolation, 20 miles north of London, my parents celebrated by themselves. A kind friend did their Pesach shopping, their rabbi organised two US Seder boxes for them. I urged my mum not to worry about changing over her kitchen, not to schlep and lift and scrub. In a normal year, she has grandchildren to help her with the preparations, I shop and cook for her and we are all together for the Seders. I never imagined Mum and Dad would have to fend for themselves. But their independence and fortitude saw them through with the help of their community. I told Mum she was mad, while applauding her dogged determination to keep the rules and traditions that mean so much to her.
Other friends — and indeed, my sister — have told me that making sure they kept the chag just as they would have done in normal times brought them great comfort this year. “We managed to celebrate the eight days of Pesach with a pretty high degree of conformity in these terrible, weird times — just as Jews have done throughout time,” one friend wrote to me.
“We clung to our traditions, marking them even more keenly when times are tough and being incredibly resilient in the face of serious adversity.” She, like me, relaxed certain rules but “I really felt it was important for us and for the kids to get as close to our usual degree of conformity as we could. It felt more important this year to do that.”
Some of our festivals seem to operate like vaccines. They introduce a small amount of chaos into our lives, to prepare our spiritual immune systems should those things happen in real life. Succot makes us think about the prospect of having no home. Purim confronts us with death by introducing the thought that a psychopath may try to murder us.
And Pesach injects us with problems around food, with separateness, a focus on domestic life and cleanliness and, above all, with freedom. The freedoms we talked about this week were those we generally take for granted. Eating out, travel, theatre and cinema — these are all incredibly important parts of my family’s life. Without them, we are not slaves, but we are made to think about what they mean to us, that everyday, taken-for-granted way of life.
I don’t think I’ll go back to being the Pesach Ayatollah. This year I realised that togetherness mattered more than rules. Our Progressive Pesach felt all wrong in some ways but oddly right in others. It may just have been the start of something.