Gathering, grief and the pandemic Passover

We are still in the desert of COVID, traveling towards the time when we can laugh, hug & eat in the same room again

Published March 25, 2021 5:00PM (EDT)

Sarah and Aaron Sanders celebrate a Passover Seder with their children, Noah, 19, Bella, 18 and Maya, 13, at home and different family members across the country via video conference on April 08, 2020 in San Anselmo, California. Many families are turning to video conference to celebrate Passover Seders because of the coronavirus (COVID-19). (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Sarah and Aaron Sanders celebrate a Passover Seder with their children, Noah, 19, Bella, 18 and Maya, 13, at home and different family members across the country via video conference on April 08, 2020 in San Anselmo, California. Many families are turning to video conference to celebrate Passover Seders because of the coronavirus (COVID-19). (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

With longer days and hints of spring, it is time for the holidays that celebrate renewal and freedom. I think back to Passovers spanning my adulthood, reminded of everything that has changed, of our fragility and endurance.

Greeted by the sea breeze and the ship's anchor on the lawn of my parents' home, my father welcomed us at the door.  For decades, our family including rotating guests like Holly Woodlawn, the transgender Puerto Rican actress and Warhol superstar, other old friends and relatives who gathered every spring for Passover Seder at my parents' house in Brooklyn, an oasis of belonging. It was our family's biggest holiday of the year, one to which we all looked forward.

In the living room, sitting on the green silk sofa and arm chairs around the large wood coffee table, Dad offered Armagnac, a prelude toast, while my mother served her stuffed mushrooms, chopped liver and eggplant salad. Moving to the dining room, on a built-in wood console was a tray with little glass memorial yahrzeit candles for our many relatives who had passed. My mother lit the candles that blazed a ghostly glow. Twelve of us gathered around the large mahogany dining table. A bronze chandelier hung above, interspersing electric lights with unlit tapers, which leaned and bent as the evening wore on.

Customarily the conversation during the meal was competitive. As a working painter and feminist, I was involved in a women's artist activist group. Jimmy, my brother, was a gay probate and immigration lawyer. We along with our guests were used to expressing ourselves. Whoever could voice their opinions the loudest received my father's attention and the power to engage with him on politics. It was usually Jimmy.

My father beamed with happiness. A practical, yet emotional man, his eyes welled up with tears as he expressed his gratitude of sharing the holiday with all of us. My smiling mother plopped in her chair at the other end of the table exhausted by the food preparation. We began the Seder.  About 20 minutes into the reading, she said, "That's enough.  The turkey's getting dry. Let's eat." I rose from my seat along with Bruce, my husband and Jimmy's partner, to bring out the matzo ball soup and then the seven other dishes. I passed each one to mom, offering to put some on her plate.  She waved them away too tired to chew, yet still managing to sparkle with Jimmy's entourage.

One spring, the Seder was more subdued because I had laryngitis and my brother, congested with a very bad cold, could barely get through the evening. The conversation lagged. Bruce and I offered to stay and help clean up. My mother shoed us all out, telling Jimmy and me to take care of ourselves. She said she would wash and put everything away at her leisure, with a smile indicating another successful holiday dinner. 

The next morning Jimmy died of an asthma attack at 40. The Hansel to my Gretel was gone. I had just become an only child instead of a big sister.  

We gathered for Passover the following year without my brother, but with our baby Jaime, named for him.  Everyone was grateful for the new life in our family, but the loss of Jimmy hovered over the room like a tent. The extra yahrzeit candle seemed to tip the tray. That year marked the beginning of the holiday as a family memorial event, instead of the lively gathering it had been.

The first Passover after my mother died in 2009, teenage Jaime made the stuffed mushrooms with great effort to duplicate my mother's recipe. He recreated the dish dissecting the memory of the tastes he knew so well. Before dinner, he proudly presented the tray to us in the living room as we sat on the same green furniture, a little more worn. My father asked me to take mom's seat at the table in the dining room. The chair felt too big for me. I was surprised that my feet could touch the ground. Bruce, who was no longer my husband, but still part of this family ritual, made the turkey at his apartment and brought it to dad's house. I improvised the rest of the meal. Jaime, as the youngest, asked the four questions beginning with "why is this night different from all other nights?" The Passover story provided the answers.

Departing from my mother's format, I initiated singing the songs, talking about what freedom and bondage meant to us and finishing the Passover story before dinner.  It wasn't the same cool dinner party as in the past, yet the Seder bound us together in the absence of my mother and brother. Memories haunted and filled the house.

After my father passed, five years ago at 95, I hosted the Seders in my apartment ready to take on the role of Mistress of Ceremonies and infuse the holiday with some of the old joy it used to have retaining good memories of my late family. Each year the definition of kin was bent and expanded. In March 2020, I zoomed into a Seder at my Rabbi's apartment. The sense of community was larger than one I had known, though each of our personal worlds constricted.   My dining table had a Seder plate and my ex, now my best friend. Isolating, we were too vulnerable to COVID for our son to join us. The little squares of screen sharing, many of the people unknown to me, held us together as a group but didn't generate the warmth of close proximity.

As we approach Season 2 of the Pandemic, anticipating the zoom Seder once again, we are still in the desert of COVID traveling towards the time when we can laugh, hug and eat in the same room. 

This past year has taught me to make adversity my ally. The majority of days I spend alone has taught me to enjoy my own company. The zoom Seders sparked innovation, connecting a community in a ritual together, sequestered in our own homes. Without technology, we would have been more isolated during this holiday celebrating the strength of a People who travelled from slavery to freedom together. We are survivors. We bear personal tragedies and those of planetary proportions and yet here we are planning for another celebration.

After a year of letting the world into my home for meetings, classes, holidays, readings, support groups, I feel my sphere of communication has expanded because of physical isolation. I don't think this way of connecting should be tossed aside when we are able to be more intimate with each other. We have gained a tool of bringing us closer in a larger sense. There is something wonderful about knowing I will see and hear authors, artists, great minds, and information by just showing up in front of my computer at a certain time. In this age of adversity, our culture has bounced forward with technology meeting our human need to connect. Added to that, the future actually looks rosy. This year, my ex and I will be able to celebrate with our son because we will all have had our vaccines. Physically being with people in addition to our closest family without masks, touching and sharing meals and closeness is part of the longed for future we can see.

By Brahna Yassky

Brahna Yassky's debut book “Slow Dancing With Fire: a memoir” is forthcoming in January 2022. Her writing has been published in American Writers Review 2020, The Independent, The Ethel, The Girlfriend and others, and won honorable mention for the 2018 Doheny Prize from The Center for Fiction. She lives in Brooklyn.

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