Seder to go: How Iowa Jews are celebrating Passover in the age of coronavirus
Central Iowa faith communities are bringing worship from one room to "thousands of rooms." Des Moines Register
In the lead-up to a usual Passover, Maccabee’s Kosher Deli in the Waveland Park neighborhood would be bustling with customers grabbing up matzah and macaroons and grape juice to serve relatives in town for the holiday.
Rabbi Yossi Jacobson would be holed up in the back, flush with catering orders for roasted brisket and matzo ball soup and gefilte fish. His wife, Chanie, would be keeping store shelves stocked while simultaneously cleaning their house and prepping their own table to host about 60 people for the first night’s Seder.
Or, to put it simply: They would be deep in the Passover rush.
But this is not a usual Passover.
As coronavirus continues its march across Iowa and staying away from large groups remains the only sure-fire solution, this Passover will be “challenging,” Chanie said. Instead of the normal extensive, family-reunion-like Seders, this year’s gatherings will be intimate, held at homes instead of temples or recreation centers.
Even as the community endures that distance, Jewish leaders told me this doesn’t have to be a lost Passover. The holiday — which memorializes when Moses freed the Jewish people from slavery and led them out of Egypt — can and should still be celebrated when the seven-day observance starts Wednesday, they said.
And, among the people I talked to, that pang of anguish over a Seder that will look and feel disparate from tradition was overshadowed by a deep positivity — an almost physical unwillingness to let changes wrought by this disease get them down.
"We made it through the Germans; we will make it through the germs,” said Rabbi Jacobson, writing prep lists in the corner of his restaurant. “The word ‘Pesach’ (Hebrew for Passover) means to jump over all challenges, and so we will.”
Yet amidst all the shifts, that “rush” still rings true to Chanie. The husband-wife team hit their pillows around 2 a.m. Sunday and were back in the store at 6:30 a.m. Monday.
Mid-last week the Jacobsons realized that COVID-19 mitigation would wrench Passover gatherings, so they quickly switched from catering chafing dishes to “Seder in a Box” kits, a first for the stalwart restaurant. Two bags filled to the brim, the kits are packed with everything families need to fill their bellies (a brisket meal with various kugels, matzo ball soup, chicken, gefilte fish with horseradish) as well as the special items needed to hold the Pesach ceremony (bitter herbs, matzah, vegetables, egg, a shank bone).
With nearly 100 orders, the response has been overwhelming — hence the lack of sleep, Chanie says with a smile.
Half of those orders were donated to older community members or those with pre-existing health conditions by the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, which coordinated delivery of those Seder Boxes to homes in Ames, Des Moines and all over Central Iowa.
“Passover is normally the time that everybody opens their homes and invites people in,” Chanie said. “But this year, because of what's going on, there are lots of people home alone. A lot of elderly who are home alone. So we put together these Passover packages, and, really, it’s a Seder to go.”
COVID Passover spotlights life’s necessities
At Temple B’nai Jeshurun on Grand Avenue, the congregation normally holds a public first-night Seder that sees about 200 people attend for fellowship and celebration. This year, Rabbi David Kaufman will record a version of the Seder to release online. The event will be stripped down for sure, he said, but the message will still ring forth.
In the story of Passover, the Pharaoh refuses to free Israelites working as slaves. As punishment, God brings 10 plagues to Egypt, including a sickness that kills animals and afflicts men, and a host of other curses that force people to stay inside.
The unfortunate poeticism to Passover happening in the age of COVID-19 is “the feeling that we are, to a certain extent, living in the middle of similar times,” Kaufman said.
Part of the Passover ritual is to recall Moses' story along with specific families’ history of oppression, difficulty and survival. After this year’s challenges are overcome, these new stories will become part of the ongoing Passover ritual, Kaufman said.
To a certain extent, the stripped-down Passover of 2020 may be more connected to the holidays of yore than ever before. This Passover, occurring in the year 3332 on the Jewish calendar, will happen on the same day that it happened in ancient times, and many will be celebrating in a comparably simple way.
The coronavirus has forced a refocusing on what matters, namely family, Chanie said as she stuffed kits at Maccabee's on Monday. It’s taken the holiday where Jews remember sacrifice, and grounded them once again in what is actually necessary.
“My daughter said to me, 'Oh, I would love to go out and get something new for Passover,'” Chanie said. “And I'm like, ‘Well, go into your closet and find something you haven’t worn for a year. It will be like it was new.'”
Earlier in the week, Chanie’s children said she didn’t have to go through all the motions of hosting a traditional Passover dinner. After all, their table would just be six of her seven children.
“I’m like, ‘We're going to do it because this is what we do every year. We bring in Passover,’” she said. “We're going to do the same thing this year, and we're going to push through this hard time.”
In rural Postville, where a stalwart Hasidic community blossomed when a kosher meatpacking plant opened in the 1980s, Aaron Goldsmith is self-quarantined at home. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 13 years ago and has been in and out of remission since then, meaning with this virus circulating, he can’t risk any exposure.
This small Jewish group in the hills of northeast Iowa would normally use Passover as a kind of homecoming, Goldsmith said, and the community would gather for prayers and joyous reunions with visiting members. The big gatherings are canceled, but some small families or close neighbors may still share a quick meal.
In a normal year, Goldsmith would be with his children, either meeting them on one of the coasts or welcoming them to Iowa. Knowing large-scale travel wasn’t possible, Goldsmith’s children deputized one son to call their father’s doctor — unbeknownst to the patriarch — and ask if just he alone could share a few hours with their father on Passover.
The doctor advised against it, but alerted Goldsmith to his children’s efforts.
“I called them up and I said, 'Even though you can’t be here, the fact that you wanted to be comforts me,'” he said. “I know I’m loved and cared for and that dispels the darkness of loneliness.”
“I will bear this Passover without any problems whatsoever,” he added.
Hope, liberation and the future
At its heart, the Passover story has two parts: The first is a tale of hope, of the resounding belief that the future will be better than the present. In using the Passover ritual to remember what has happened, followers recall how ancient Jews remained deeply positive that if they listened to God, they would survive.
That focus on the future has sustained Jews for centuries, Rabbi Jacobson said.
“Many Holocaust survivors told me when I asked them, ‘What mindset did you have to get through what you witnessed?’ They said they had it in their mind, ‘God, I know I'm going to get through this. This is going to be behind me one day,’” Rabbi Jacobson said. “They put their mind in the future.”
While hope remains that next Passover will see life return to normal, Rabbi Kaufman has been reminding his congregants that physical distance is not the same as spiritual distance.
“The way I think about it, we’re not having a bunch of individual Seders around the world,” Kaufman said. “I am reminding people that all Jews around the world will be doing the same thing on the same day and in that way, we are connected, just as we have been for centuries. We are apart, but we are having a global Seder.”
The second part to the Passover story is liberation. After following God's word, the Jews were freed.
In Iowa, if we follow the guidelines of our public health officials, the quarantine will be lifted and we will be allowed to gather again, Kaufman said.
And no matter how long that takes, whenever the all-clear is given, Temple B’nai Jeshurun will host its traditional Passover Seder.
“For us, it will be a celebration of liberation in more ways than one,” he said.
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She's a parallel parking master acquainting herself with gravel roads. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
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