For the JC March 2020
Normally, the weeks between Purim and Pesach gallop by, in a furious frenzy of lists and shopping and… more lists.
This year, however, has a curious sense of time having slowed up, if not stopped completely. Somewhere in a parallel universe, I feel, Pesach is going ahead as normal. There will be a Seder night, or nights, complete with noisy family and lots of jokes. I will have a bagful of silly pocket-money toys for the many children, and I will be the person shivering slightly on the doorstep as we open the door for Elijah, and then rush in for the children gravely to inspect Elijah’s cup to see if he has drunk from it.
But we are not in a parallel universe, and this year is like no other.
Two years ago, just before Pesach, I broke my arm in a bus accident and for the first time in my life I was unable to attend a Seder — mainly because I couldn’t get any clothes on. But, thanks to the kindness of my friends, I did my Pesach shopping, changed my kitchen over (and back) with the help of a cleaning service, and, generally, enjoyed the festival one-armed.
So last year, with the opportunity to celebrate with my family, I thoroughly enjoyed Pesach. I always over-cater because fewer and fewer of my contemporaries bother with the festival any more, certainly not among my single friends. So Pesach is the time of year that people come round to me because I won’t go out: and we enjoy drinking out of my late mother’s completely-unfit-for-purpose china teacups, and mutter in a mock-shock way about the cost of cinnamon balls or coconut pyramids.
Not this year. This year it’s not a matter of “won’t go out”, it’s “can’t go out”. There is no point in over-catering because it’s only me — and it’s only ever going to be me for the duration of the festival, because of the wretched virus.
Last week, in a flurry of anxiety about Pesach, because all I had was one box of matza brought for me by a kind friend, I embarked on the usual round of food shopping, list in hand. I hit the kosher shops and in a blitz of acquisition bought all the non-perishables that I usually buy. By this time, in a normal plague-free year, one room in my flat would be sealed off and devoted to Pesach foodstuffs, prior to clearing the kitchen. I still have only the perishable goods to buy: the milk, the butter, the cheese.
But: and there is a big but. But, I ask myself, who am I doing this for? Why I am spending three times the price of regular coffee on Pesach-supervised coffee?
I honestly can’t come up with a satisfactory answer. I have friends — married, traditionally observant friends — who have already declared that they are not going to change over their plates and cutlery this year. They are so grief-stricken by the rising deaths around us that they can’t be bothered with the minutiae of this most pernickety of festivals, the cleaning of the house, the regulations governing when you can and cannot eat matzo (not before the Seder).
And almost everyone of those I know, anecdotally, will not be bothering to have a Seder this year. There will be, they say, something hollow and empty about Pesach.
I get that. I get the weirdness of celebrating a festival of freedom when we are contained in our houses and flats, unable to leave except for essential supplies and a brief attempt at exercise.
And I know that keeping Pesach, home alone, is probably peculiar. There is, after all, no-one to judge me except me, whether I bother with the changeover or not, eat the Pesach foods or not.
But part of me looks on Pesach as an opportunity to take stock and, if you will, a displacement activity for the long hours that lie ahead without proper gainful employment. It will certainly be labour-intensive as the cleaning service has already informed me it is unable to honour its appointment to help me clear the kitchen of chametz, or put everything back at the end of the chag.
I also know that thanks to technology, it’s possible to take part in a virtual, or on-line Seder, though you’d probably have to have an agreed level of observance on the part of all participants to do that.
Still, this will be a Pesach like no other. I will be able to sing all the songs to my childhood traditional tunes, and add coronavirus to the list of plagues, much as my grandmother used to add “Hitler”. There is the added lure of being the youngest in the house for the first time in decades, meaning that I get to ask “Ma Nishtana” AND answer the questions.
I will read my Haggadah and raise my glass to freedom in the future. I will never take such freedom for granted again. Chag sameach.