On the Jewish food scene: Passover without the food-ceremonial or otherwise

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

A group of friends and I gather for an off-night seder each year. We usually hold it on a Sunday afternoon so people can attend family seders on the first nights of the holiday, and those of us still working don’t have to worry about a late night. Sometimes, the best day is actually before or after the actual holiday. That makes it easier to prepare food for the potluck that’s part of the gathering; one year when it took place after Passover, my mom brought a pizza. 

The first year of the pandemic (in 2020), the seder was cancelled. We did a Zoom call for our Rosh Hashanah that year, but the person who organizes the gatherings was concerned about doing a Zoom Passover gathering last year (2021). One important reason was that we wouldn’t be able to share the ceremonial foods over the computer. Even though our potluck meal might not pass everyone’s definition of kosher for Passover, the ceremonial food has always been an important part of the event.

I said, “Let me think about it” and searched for a way to create a new type of Passover gathering. Was there a way to replace food, which not only important as a symbol in Judaism, but in cultures around the world? Would it be possible to find readings that would work? After all, if food is a symbol, couldn’t those readings stand in its place?

I managed to put together a group of readings, including a wonderful one that represented the four cups of wine. It helped that people were searching for creative ways that spoke to the difficulty of celebrating the holiday during a pandemic. The readings I found acknowledged that “this night, day and year were different from other nights, days and years.” We decided to go ahead with the Zoom “seder” and the message I received afterward was that it was more moving than most people expected. I can only take credit for finding those wonderful readings, none of which I wrote. 

My friend has asked about doing an in-person seder this year, something that worked well for the small Rosh Hashanah gathering we held last fall. I said yes, but he’s waiting until closer to the date to send out an e-mail because no one knows if a new variation of the COVID surge will appear. The e-mail will also include a request that only those who have been vaccinated attend.

But one thing is clear: as important and wonderful as food for the seder is, its true meaning is our liberation from slavery. We don’t need bitter herbs to appreciate how bitter life can be and we don’t need salt water to remind us of the tears we’ve shed. As for the sweet taste of charoset, the love of those we cherish can take the place of what is my favorite seder food. 
Perhaps this year, we will be liberated from the plague of COVID. If not, we can still find meaning in this holiday season. We just need to be open and appreciate the blessings we do have. Wishing you a joyous Passover.