April 9, 2020
Is it ungrateful to be sad?
Is it unreasonable — after not one but two carefully planned Seders, full of dear friends and family who smiled and sang and reached deep inside themselves to offer up truth over the Cloud — to feel grief at the memory of what once was, and the glimpse of what could have been these last two nights?
Is it right to be so angry at a virus, a thing so tiny even a cell dwarfs it?
It may be ungrateful, and unreasonable, and wrong. But here I am, after the second of two Seders, a little emptier than I wish I was, having one of those moments that come every now and again, when I just want to fling this lockdown aside and live.
Even if I were to break all the rules, though, it wouldn’t matter. I’m in California, where everyone around me is so, so good. I’d be hugging and shaking hands with the air.
A Seder, for those of you don’t live in worlds like mine, is basically a second Thanksgiving for Jews, with a ritualized service at the dinner table before you eat. You have a book called a Haggadah, which among other things tells the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. At specific moments you drink wine and eat certain foods and sing certain songs. The whole thing (meaning, the service part) can take anywhere from 30 minutes to many hours, and can be done all in English, partly in Hebrew, or all in Hebrew, depending upon the religiosity and stamina of the people at the table.
Usually, we go to my cousin Susan’s house in Carthay Circle for the first night Seder, and we often host a smaller, second night one at our house, with family and neighbors. The same pattern basically held this year, except, of course, we did both on Zoom.
There were some obvious bright spots. To amend a phrase from the Haggadah, on any other Passover night, we would not have had all five members of our immediate family at the table. My older son would have been in Ghana, where he was studying abroad for the second semester of his junior year in college (and where he’d planned to travel to the north of the country, to celebrate with the small Jewish community there). My younger son would have been in college in the Midwest. Who knows what he would have been doing? Attending a Seder at his roommate’s parents’ house? Homework? Partying? For sure, he wouldn’t have been with us.
On the first night, we were joined by my cousin Alyse, who’s nearly 104 years old. She didn’t seem like she would have been able to make a dinner in-person. What’s more, our Seder included people in Ohio, Chicago and New York City. Together, we reached out across a continent to laugh and sing and pray and eat together.
Usually, at our house, we use the Haggadahs we purchased when our boys were in preschool, and the mood is light to match. We sing songs about frogs jumping on Pharoah (“frogs here! frogs there! frogs were jumping everywhere — even in his underwear!”), and toss plague finger puppets (blood! locusts! boils!) onto the table with merry abandon.
Can you even imagine? As if a plague were a joke from long ago?
Tonight, we used a downloaded Haggadah compiled by our rabbis for this coronavirus time, and we went around the screen, from square image to square image, sharing what we’d lately learned about ourselves and the world.
“I’ve learned it can be scary to go to the grocery store,” one person said.
“I’ve learned I like L.A. this quiet,” said another.
In that moment, or in moments like when Susan’s group recited the blessing over the bread together, in six different cities in four different states, I felt connection like you rarely feel in groups, Zoom or otherwise. And my soul was calmed.
There’s so much of that these days, these crazy, whipsawed days. I am deeply calm in the knowledge that what I feel, others around me feel as well. In that feeling, there’s no loneliness. There’s no isolation.
But I’m anxious about the state of our imploding world (or perhaps it’s not imploding? maybe I’ve got it all, pessimistically wrong? See, this is how I get anxious). And I’m missing the part of life I never knew could go away — the leaning-over-to-whisper, the glass-clinking, the cheek-kissing. I miss the moment at Susan’s house when she passes around a basket of green onions, and we all slap each other with them during the Dayenu song (though our middle son managed to make a pretty entertaining drum out of his scallion and the stray Haggadah page that landed on his dad’s lap last night). I miss the way, once dinner is done, we’d all push back our chairs at our house and talk about anything and everything, while bored children wandered to screens, to hang out with each other, or even back to their own houses, around the corner or down the street.
This pandemic time is like panning for gold. I come regularly upon nuggets, large and small, that glitter and shine and have real worth. But the sun burns my neck, my back aches from bending over, and from time to time I look down to see my jeans and sleeves are soaked, black crescents top my fingernails and my shoes are encrusted with mud.
Enough, I think.
I want my old, imperfect life back.
Now would not be a moment too soon.