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Social distancing gives seder a different feel

  • Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and chair of the college’s Jewish Studies Program, in a July 1, 2016, portrait in Hanover, N.H. (Dartmouth College - Robert Gill)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/9/2020 9:12:46 PM
Modified: 4/9/2020 9:12:33 PM

For Susannah Heschel, the seder she holds on the first night of Passover is usually busy and joyous, with a dozen or more people around her table.

Extended family and friends travel to join her family of four and the second night of Passover is often only slightly less busy.

Though she and her family are trapped at home to escape the novel coronavirus, Heschel’s seder on Wednesday night, which followed days of house cleaning and a day spent cooking, packed in even more people, this time via the web-conferencing platform Zoom.

Typically, Jews are not permitted to use a computer on the holiday, but some rabbis made exceptions to accommodate many who would have been alone on the holiday.

Fifteen people called in, ranging from a colleague in Hanover to people in Connecticut, California and Waco, Texas. They partook of the traditional meal and read the Haggadah, which sets out the order of the seder. “Everybody felt warm and cozy,” Heschel, who is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and chair of the college’s Jewish Studies Program, said in a phone interview Thursday from her home in Newton, Mass. “It felt good. We really felt we were together.”

Yet the seder wasn’t entirely joyful. Among the readings was a message from Grand Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, a cousin of Heschel’s, who died Tuesday of complications from COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. He was 89 and was one of the world’s most influential Orthodox rabbis. His statement urged people to follow the instructions to stay home, to listen to medical professionals and to perform acts of kindness for people in need.

“This is what we have to do,” Heschel said.

Passover is dedicated to telling the story of how the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt and of the plagues visited upon Egypt. To celebrate it in a time of plague, when most people are staying home, gives it a particular resonance. To read the story is to be reminded that “God said, ‘Stay in your home, don’t go out because the angel of death is upon us,’” Heschel said. Like the Jews in Egypt, we, too, are hoping for freedom, if of a different sort.

“This moment is very much about that,” Heschel said.

Passover, she said, “gives us an opportunity to express our deepest fears and yearnings in a concrete way.”

Christians also celebrate rebirth, but with a difference. Three days elapse from Christ’s fall to the resurrection, while Jews still await the coming of the prophet. The Haggadah was written after Christ’s death, though it describes more distant events. The wait is long, the memory of suffering and liberation are refreshed each year. At Passover, the unleavened bread is held up as “the bread of affliction,” a refutation of the seeming ease of Christian redemption.

“We immerse ourselves in the idea of the savior not being redeemed,” Heschel said. The exercise offers a reflection on the coronavirus, which will take time, and who knows how long, to lift.

In the meantime, religious leaders will have some thinking to do about how the coronavirus crisis ends, something else that could be informed by the Passover story. The Jews wandered after escaping Egypt. Some even wanted to go back.

At some point, Heschel said, the current quarantine will end, “and then what are we going to do?” Life won’t return to its previous status quo. Families will have lost loved ones, workers will have lost jobs and many people who weren’t well off to begin with will find their lives ruined.

“What will come from this is horrific impoverishment,” Heschel said.

Right now, she noted, one of the hardest things to do is to stop reading the news, to stop dwelling on the catastrophic view.

“How do we respond to that apocalyptic thinking?” she said. Down the centuries, the responses come from the prophetic tradition. “I feel that way, of course, and then the prophets come along and say, “We have to have justice. We have to care for widows and orphans.” There is “a moral clarity in the prophetic tradition that allows us to calm down” and to say “I know what needs to be done.”

Reading in the books of the prophets and waiting and carrying on with her work from home is all she can do for now. Her cousin’s funeral this week was virtual, which is no subsitute.

“We couldn’t go to the funeral, we can’t go and visit the family and the children,” Heschel said. “The plague is upon us.” The seder typically ends with the phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem,” which speaks to the hopes of Jews for freedom, an end to persecution everywhere. But it also means, Heschel said, “Next year in freedom. Freedom from this plague.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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