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Passing on Passover: The Pandemic Edition

No, we’re really not celebrating Passover this year. I have a feeling, we’re not alone in this decision, either. I have another feeling that others who have made the same decision as us aren’t being vocal about it. (In the same way that masses of fellow liberal Jews who decide, like us, to eat on You Kippur keep that quiet, too.) So, much as I decided to blog about why we choose not to fast on Yom Kippur (seven years later still a very popular post), I think it’s important to share with other why we’re passing on Pesach during this troubling time of coronavirus.

Passover has always been a time of great Jewish introspection for Ryan and me. My first Passover post-conversion ended with an A-Ha! moment over an illicit sandwich. A later Pesach found us finding our holiday groove. In the intervening near-decade, we also struggled with celebrating a 7-day holiday in the Diaspora and observing Passover after leaving our shul.

In fact, this isn’t the first time we’ve given Pesach a pass. When my family and I reunited after 20 years apart in 2015, we stopped all our holiday preparations, happily re-embraced chametz, and traveled to NYC to be with them. So there’s precedent.

But this time, this night is different from all other nights for us for a less joyous reason–and that reason is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This week, can you really wrap your mind around thanking God for sparing us from plagues during a plague? I can’t. Can you find the place in your heart harboring gratitude and joy for our liberating journey into the desert? There’s not a rousing-enough round of Dayenu! in the world for me to make my emotional way there right now.

When more than a million people are infected with a disease that has already killed nearly a hundred thousand (and memo to self–come back here in a year and see how heart-breakingly dated these numbers will likely be)–and the world epicenter is now my hometown where my family lives… Not grateful. Not sorry.

When Ryan and I have spent weeks making sure our pantry and household staples are well-stocked for the long haul–fridge, freezer, pantry shelves, linen closet comfortingly full of an extra two-weeks of everyday necessities–most of it chametz-laden… Where to hide it all to follow the letter of the law? More importantly, where to stock a week of Kosher-for-Passover replacement items, honestly, at all?

As my awesome Afghanistan-vet niece, Jennie, said, they always waited for civilians to understand what PTSD is really like. Now we’re all living with it. Does the ephemeral really want us to add to this worldwide collective traumatic experience by–literally–rocking back our preparations for it in order to avoid leaven? Is the penalty for eating chametz over Pesach really Karet (spiritual excision), when the penalty for accidentally bringing coronavirus-contaminated supplies into your family’s kitchen might be equally final?

We’ve always shopped weekly, based off a meal plan and a detailed list I create in advance. (Who knew becoming a home cook 15 years ago would be so useful in a pandemic?) We eventually shifted to grocery delivery like the rest of the world. But having to wait days for a delivery slot now (or even for the ability to shop online at all), we’re back to weekly shopping in person. I slap my pillowcase mask on my face and head into the stores. Ryan remains in the car with the hand sanitizer.

I’ve seen some crazy things since sheltering-in-place began a few weeks ago. People wearing produce bags as gloves, welding face-gear as masks, and there was that clueless woman who kept wiping her nose and then touching all the (now-priceless) toilet paper packages at our local Whole Foods. But the worst I’ve seen has been at the famed “Jewel on Howard”–our preferred nearby megamarket that happens to have one the largest kosher sections at any commercial chain supermarket in all of Illinois.

In ordinary times, it’s our unquestioned go-to for Jewish holiday foodstuffs and supplies. Its kosher aisles are ordinarily filled with large Ultra-Orthodox families–parents and children–shopping together. These are often families belonging to very politically conservative Ultra-Orthodox communities. If we had a nickel for every Trump-positive, news media-damning bumper sticker we’ve seen on the vehicles of these fellow Jewish families, we’d have a very alarmingly large amount of money to weather the growing national economic crisis.

The disturbing thing is–they’re still shopping as extended families. Parents and children, no masks, touching everything, believing that COVID-19 is a hoax and/or that prayer is all that’s necessary to avoid it. Think I’m kidding? This is exactly why Israel began quarantining the nation’s strict Ultra-Orthodox Charedi communities (and here, and here) before any others. In fact, according to Israeli newspaper of record Ha’aretz, as of today Ultra-Orthodox Jews account for 75% of COVID-19 cases in Jerusalem.

This is heartbreaking, frightening, maddening, depressing, and frankly, unsurprising. Thanking God for delivering us from a plague, during a plague, if you can stomach it, is probably the most Jewish thing you can do. Judaism’s religious extremist communities dismissing the ongoing plague in the first place, thus literally helping to spread it? That’s something else entirely.

Judaism places the sanctity of life above all else. Above Shabbat (the weekly Sabbath), above ritual and observance. Above all other concerns. My Jewish concerns during this pandemic involve the safety of my loved ones–my family in New York City, Ryan and myself here in Chicago, and  Walter and Lillian Disney Cat, while I’m at it. Maintaining the sanctity of our physical health is important. Maintaining the sanctity of our mental health is important. Maintaining the sanctity of our emergency pantry is important.

Avoiding five types of grain by body checking my way through masses of coronavirus-doubting families to amass a weeklong mirror pantry of religiously permitted items in order to avoid a Biblical religious penalty that can no longer be applied because we haven’t had a Sanhedrin (religious court) in 1,500 years, and that liberal Jews don’t hold by anyway?

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

May those of you observing Pesach this year be and stay healthy and safe. May your Zoom Seder conferences be secure and free from porn-bearing intruders. (Unless that is your jam, in which case, self-select and go for it–you know who you are.) Enjoy some brisket, and matzoh bark, and Joyva Jell Rings for me.

We’ll be having chicken paprikash over egg noodles tonight. Real egg noodles, with no Seder plate in sight. Given the circumstances, we’re good with it. Pretty sure God will be, too.

To next year in Chicago, or wherever our travels may bring us all.

Categories: Health JEWISH HOLIDAYS

Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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