It’s the first Passover Eve I didn’t spend with my mum and family, sitting around my cousins’ table with chatter and prayers and the good humour that is always present on these occasions. When do we eat the eggs? Surely now it’s the bitter herbs? Even when my dad and uncle were alive we never quite got it right, and that was exactly the way it was supposed to be.
Members of the family have always contributed to past feasts, but my cousin’s Moroccan wife is a fabulous cook and she has always provided the majority of the meal, a combination of her Moroccan and my Indian Jewish heritage, always with a vegetarian option, ensuring our palates had been satisfied and our stomachs filled by home time. My wife and I have always made desert (I say we, but in truth I shop and she prepares). Poached peaches or nectarines and a large bowl of mixed berries with accompanying syrup. And in case we wanted more, homemade Passover cakes and biscuits were on offer. I always want more.
I ‘do’ Passover for cultural reasons and because it’s an opportunity to be with my family. More importantly my mum enjoys the tradition. Though she lives among a highly orthodox community, she is not orthodox. She has always looked forward to the festivals, a time to be with those she loves and remember those she has lost. I respect her needs and this year as every year, I ensured she had everything in place. This required queuing outside a local kosher supermarket, a five minute walk from mum, queuing two meters apart. Except no one in the queue apart from me seemed to be aware of the need to stand 2 meters apart, including the woman in the mask and the man wearing blue gloves. I have access to neither but as I edged closer to the entrance I was handed a pair of gloves by a security guard. I slipped them on quickly and mentioned to the guard that I was astonished no one was paying attention to the 2 meter rule. He looked at the queue and said, well they all look like one family to me. They’re not one family, I said, and they are definitely not my family. Shopping at kosher supermarkets just before Passover has its advantages. They sell off all food that is not kosher for Passover. Given the current state of food affairs, my trolley was replete with flour and yeast and wholemeal pitta. Result.
Once inside I raced around, scooping up boxes of matzah for mum, kosher for Passover schnitzel, coconut macaroons and a large chocolate cake. As I paced quickly up and down the aisles, I was aware that no one seemed to care about social distancing. A virus. What virus?
Horrified and scared, I paid and made a speedy exit, noting the absence of social distancing again at the checkout. There was no Perspex between us, and the man packing was practically sitting on top of the woman at the till. Weirdly, when I took out my own shopping bag, they refused to touch it, in case of infection. Thanks very much.
I left mum’s shopping on her doorstep and texted her carer alerting her to the drop. With the carer back inside at a safe distance, I waved at mum from the front door. But mum couldn’t see me. Mum in her reclining chair. Mum with her Audible book to one side and her radio with extra-large buttons to the other. I phoned her. Did you get my schnitzel? Yes mum. How many boxes of matzah? Six, mum. And the small tea matzahs? Yes, mum. Pickled cucumbers? Of course, mum. She gave me the thumbs up. She was happy. No virus was going to stop her celebrating Passover, but this year she would be celebrating the Seder in a different way.
This year, like many other families, we took part in the Passover Seder digitally. I spent an hour setting up zoom (via phone) with mum’s carer, then my eldest nephew took control of her computer and sorted out some niggles. Then he took control of my cousin’s computer and did the same. Mum was, I think, quite excited at the prospect, our first on-line festival. She would be with us, not with us. Our bubbles would burst together.
My wife prepared our table with her usual flair and a great deal of generosity. My worn Haggadah (the Jewish text that sets out the order of the Passover Seder) with its blue velvet cover was ready. We didn’t have the ‘right’ wine, substituted it with non-alcoholic Martini Rosso. A box of matzah was placed on the table, along with everything we needed for the blessings; lettuce, boiled eggs, lemon juice, celery, parsley (sorry, no shank bone), a small pot of Charoset (or haroset or charoses), a sweet, dark-coloured paste made of fruits and nuts. My aunt still makes the best Charoset. The one I bought in the local kosher supermarket was too sweet for me. Our chicken was roasting, the veg prepped. Everything was ready.
At seven o’clock, my family’s faces started to appear on screen, popping up with smiles and waves. My niece and nephews and their partners zoomed from their homes in north London. My niece-in-law’s parents joined from Barnes. My cousin zoomed from Gants Hill, and mum and her brilliant carer came to us live from mum’s dining room in NW11. This wasn’t the entire family, that would have been too chaotic. Though we did exchange messages with the cousins during the evening, a sense of sadness alongside solidarity and love. Social distancing has been hard on everyone, those who live by themselves, the elderly, those who are grieving alone, those in care homes and their families and friends who are not allowed to visit. The digital age – to those who have it – has never been a more vital life-line. For some in hospital, whose only way of communicating with family is with the help of NHS staff and a device, Facetime may provide a final memory.
We gathered together and yet not together in our respective kitchens, dining rooms, living rooms. When my mum’s face appeared a cry went up. Hi Esther, Hi Es, Hi Mum, Hi Grandma! I held in my tears. She has macular degeneration and is registered blind. No amount of screen space would allow her to see us. Her hearing is challenged anyway, never more so than when we’re all trying to speak. But we took care and let her words emerge, though every syllable is now a meander and a struggle.
There are many sentences in the Haggadah that I don’t like or don’t agree with. There are also many different versions of the Haggadah. My nephew and his wife had planned ahead and sent us a link to a reform Judaism version, which is kinder and more thoughtful than the usual texts, including illustrations of daughters and not just sons. I noted one of the editorial group was named as Rabbi Neil Kraft, a much loved and respected Minister from Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, who was due to retire. Rabbi Neil Kraft died of Coronavirus. Everything is connected.
Working our way through the blessings, we came to the ten plagues, accompanied by colour illustrations. As a plague is named, a drop of wine is poured into an old glass. Blood. Frogs. Vermin. A mixture of noxious beasts. Pestilence. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Slaying of the first born. I added, Covid19. The glass is then wrapped in a cloth, taken outside and smashed. Be gone plagues. We do not want to drink you!
Only too aware of all households around the world, each with their own worries and concerns about the health of loved ones, jobs lost, work on hold, and how we’d approach an eventual easing in to a new normal, we waved goodbye. Faces disappeared one at a time, all of us so happy to have been together, to have raised glasses and hopes. Mum’s worry about when the egg must be eaten was satisfied, because she ate the egg when she chose to, not according to a text.
At the end of the Seder, there’s a saying, ‘Next Year in Jerusalem,’ which I interpret as next year we will celebrate Passover in Jerusalem or next year we will be living in Jerusalem. It has never been my intention to live anywhere but where I have lived for the past fifty-eight years.
As their faces dropped off the screen, faint farewells fading, I knew where I wanted to be next year. In north London with my mum.
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