My son, the newly minted Israeli soldier, did not make it home for Passover seder. And my husband, who is running a coronavirus unit at a hospital in Tel Aviv, was scheduled to work on seder night, but pulled off a Passover miracle by being able to stay home.
Intellectually, I knew my son would not be allowed to leave his base on the border with Egypt to join us for seder. It was something I had fully expected before anyone had ever heard of the coronavirus. But the base is in lockdown so no one can bring coronavirus back from a furlough home. That did not stop me from preparing his favorite holiday food on the offbeat chance that he would walk through the door five minutes before the holiday started.
My husband’s Arab-Israeli colleagues were the ones that encouraged him not to leave his family on seder night, insisting that they could handle things as long as he was available by phone, which since he is a doctor saving lives he is permitted to do on Yom Tov.
All of us spent the two to three weeks in the run-up to Passover obsessing about how the holiday would look in the shadow of the coronavirus. In general, Passover products do not make an appearance here in Israel until a couple of weeks before the holiday and by then we were on limited lockdowns. I spent days planning my trips to the multiple supermarkets I needed to visit to get the particular products I wanted, and worried about whether I would be allowed to leave the community in order to visit them. I waited in lines at the butcher and the makolet (corner store) that stretched down the street – in part because we were all social distancing – since only up to eight people were permitted in the little stores at a time.
And eggs. An unexpected egg shortage in the run-up to Passover made planning for the holiday a nightmare. After matzah the food most necessary and most consumed is eggs. At first, I ran out every time I heard a store had eggs, overcoming my reluctance to visit stores and increase my chance of exposure to COVID-19 to buy a dozen or a tray of
30 eggs – the limit allowed per visit.
And then we all wondered where and with whom we would be spending seder. The bad news hit in stages. First, we were told not to invite other families. Then not to have seder with our extended families. Then not to have seder with elderly parents for fear of infecting them with the deadly disease. And then not to have seder even with our children who do not live with us in our homes. The new directives came in waves, each days apart, so as to soften the blow.
I spent so much time thinking about how to handle a coronavirus Passover that I did not have the time to think about the day after, the day that this column appears in print.
So what do we do now?
Traditional Jews count the 49 days between Passover – when we left Egypt – and Shavuot, when we received the Torah.
In light of the coronavirus crisis, counting feels like the right thing to do.
On the most basic level, perhaps by the time we finish counting the worst of the pandemic will be on the way out. Perhaps, we will meet each other again on the street or in synagogue, dressed in new clothes for the holiday that we will finally be able to shop for. Perhaps, we will be able to bake towering cheesecakes and egg-filled quiches without worrying about where our next egg or package of cheese will come from.
Much of the period of the counting of the omer is a time of semi-mourning, to remember the plague that killed thousands of the students in the yeshiva of Rabbi Akiva, because as the Talmud relates, they did not treat each other with proper respect and dignity. During this period, one does not attend weddings or other celebrations, go to movies, get haircuts or shave, or listen to live music.
This period of the omer is much like the situation in which we find ourselves right now. Since we are limited to seeing only the people we live with, there are no weddings or celebrations, there are no trips to a movie or a restaurant, there are no concerts. Who needs to shave or get a haircut when you never leave your home? Or even touch up your hair color for that matter (or so my friends tell me, ha ha ha).
Some of the upcoming events that I was able to put out of my mind as I worried about getting to and through Passover have now invaded my brain. Will my younger son be able to take his matriculation exams and graduate from high school? Will there be a graduation ceremony? Will my niece be able to come for her summer program to Israel? Will her sister be able to come for a gap year after the summer? When will my mother be able to come visit us again? When will I be able to visit her?
For now, I think, I will just count.
Marcy Oster is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the CJN from Karnei Shomron, West Bank.