For their first pandemic Passover last year, Hershel Kagan and Jerry Ritt co-ordinated a cross-Canada video chat reunion to replicate the convivial feel of the Passover seder, a ritualized meal that retells the ancient tale of the enslavement of Jews in Egypt.
But the Ottawa parents of two say the give-and-take of the ceremony, which encourages group participation in readings, songs, symbolic foods and other customs, just didn’t translate over Zoom.
They’re among the Canadian Jews who are taking a pass on virtual seders this weekend, saying there’s no substitute for the garrulous family gatherings that typify the holiday tradition.
“Usually, Passover is like the celebration of success, the victory that the Jews were freed,” Ritt said. “Now, it’s like … we’re in the desert.”
In Canada, Jews typically hold seders on the first two nights of the eight days of Passover, packing their homes with friends or family for an often hours-long elaborate religious feast.
Kagan had hoped he could approximate this familiar atmosphere by hosting a socially distanced outdoor seder, seating guests across two tables parted by a symbolic “Red Sea.” But those plans were thwarted when Ottawa was moved to the second-strictest “red” level of the province’s pandemic framework earlier this month.
Kagan and Ritt still have a full slate of activities planned for the holiday, including a matzah-themed scavenger hunt, a trivia competition and a third pseudo-seder on Zoom featuring stories, games and improvised skits.
But with their ceremonial seders limited to close family, Kagan said he’s still struggling to get into the Passover spirit.
“I’m trying to put in some energy, but I do feel like there is a weight I have over it too,” he said. “Part of me does feel like this is too much. It’s too hard to accomplish.”
Some Jews are finding it hard to justify preparing the traditional multi-course seder meal without a crowd to feed, prompting some restaurants and caterers to offer Passover specials for as few as one to two people.
But as social distancing leaves plenty of seats for the spirit of Elijah at the Passover table, many Jewish groups are expanding their virtual offerings to help make people’s seder plates a little less bitter.
In addition to streaming religious services, some synagogues are pulling out all the stops to engage congregants though online Passover guides, seder cooking tutorials, charity initiatives, podcasts, games and parody songs.
“Seder Night in Canada” brought together an array of cantors and musicians for an online broadcast on Thursday that featured appearances from high-profile guests including comedian John Cleese, actor Jeremy Piven, lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Toronto Mayor John Tory.
But for Noa Karmel in Calgary, no amount of digital fanfare can capture the essence of Passover, which in her view, lies in the ceremony and conversation around the seder table.
As far as celebrations go, Karmel compared the Passover seder to the Jewish equivalent of Christmas dinner, with a little less merriment and a lot more reading and rituals.
But beyond its religious implications, the 22-year-old said the seder is at its core a lively — if sometimes fractious — discussion with relatives over platters of food.
That overlapping discourse can’t happen over video-chat, she said. And with everyone suffering from Zoom overload, Karmel said her extended family “could not be bothered” to arrange a Zoom seder this year.
“Even though it’s going to be different, it’s still my favourite holiday,” said Karmel, adding that with more Canadians getting vaccinated, she’s banking on a big seder bash next Passover.
Gail Milner in Edmonton said she’s moving ahead with a virtual seder this weekend, because while the situation may not be ideal, perseverance is a vital theme of Passover.
Milner is packaging her usual holiday fare for her kids to pick up, and everyone will Zoom in from their respective social bubbles to recite many of the songs and prayers, although it can be hard to keep track of which page people are on.
Her 97-year-old mother, who is a Holocaust survivor, performed the same customs back in Czechoslovakia. Jews have survived hard times before, said Milner, and she isn’t going to let a pandemic prevent her from celebrating Passover with her loved ones.
“These are all things that have been passed on from generation to generation,” she said.
“We have to keep up with our traditions. That’s what makes our Jewish identity.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2021.