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During a Pandemic Passover, Hope and Humor Can See Us Through

During a Pandemic Passover, Hope and Humor Can See Us Through

Jews have a long history of “laughter through tears.”

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

A meme adapted from a popular image by animator Jake Clark captures the dilemma of Passover preparation in the face of Covid-19.
A meme adapted from a popular image by animator Jake Clark captures the dilemma of Passover preparation in the face of Covid-19.

Imagine that the Prophet Elijah shows up when you open the door for him seder night. And imagine his surprise when you greet him by saying, “Welcome — but please step back so we’re at least six feet apart.”

And then you spray him with Lysol.

Yes, this Passover is different from all other Passovers. And for all the humor that’s been going around on the Internet — the gift bouquets of toilet paper and observations that the seder may be cancelled by a plague — this may well be the most dangerous and frightening Festival of Freedom in our lives.

The images of the familiar story of the Exodus from Egypt have never seemed more real or relevant. We can well imagine countless frightened Israelites, confined to their homes in the dark of night, praying that the Angel of Death will pass over and spare them from tragedy. The parallels to today are all too obvious.

Maybe that’s why a sense of humor is, davka, so important in dark times. We Jews have a long history of “laughter through tears” as a sign of resilience, mocking authority and turning a pessimistic reality into a chance to smile.

My Jewish Week colleague Steve Lipman wrote a book called “Laughter In Hell” about the jokes that emerged from the Holocaust, many of them characterized by elements of defiance. My favorite is about the two German Jews who, at the height of World War II, come up with a plan to kill Hitler. They somehow manage to get a gun, they painstakingly make three bullets, and they learn that every Tuesday at 2 p.m. the Fuhrer’s motorcade drives by a certain remote spot in the countryside. So, they camp out nearby in preparation. On the appointed day, as they wait nervously, 2 p.m. comes, but no cars come by. Fifteen minutes later, still no motorcade. A half hour goes by, no sign of Hitler.

Finally, one Jew turns to his friend and says, “I hope nothing happened to him.”

The humor emerging from the current pandemic is unique to the situation. “Your grandparents were called to war; you are being called to sit on a couch,” one popular Internet message notes. “You can do this.” A video that’s gone viral has a frantic Israeli mother saying that if the coronavirus doesn’t do her in, putting up with distance learning for her child will.

Perhaps as a tribute to the new technology, our songs at the seder should include, and give new meaning to, an Israeli kibbutz classic, now to be called, “Zoom Gali Gali.”

The many coronavirus jokes and videos making the rounds seek to distract us from our new reality. Hard to believe that only a few weeks ago we complained about the busy-ness of our lives. Now we are adrift without the structure of a daily routine, and panic can set in when we consider how long this period of limbo may last. Not that long ago, I would wake up early each morning and wonder if I can still make the 6:50 bus to the train station, decide whether I need to wear a tie to work, and worry over which stories we’d put on the front page that week.

Now I wake up and wonder, is this nightmare real? Is today Tuesday or Thursday? Is he still the president? Might this be the day I change my underwear?

The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on every part of our lives, serving as a particularly solemn reminder for us Boomers. Just a few weeks ago, my wife and I put our names on a list of volunteers from our shul in Riverdale to deliver groceries and other essentials to homebound neighbors. But we soon got a call from our rabbi, who gently explained that that those over 60 would best help by staying home.

After we hung up, I told my wife, “If that’s the case, let’s sign up for the other list.”

Which we did. We are now among the many beneficiaries of a group of more than 130 volunteers extending themselves in countless ways to sustain and strengthen the community. And there are many similar stories of both creative and traditional chesed efforts taking place here and in communities around the country.

This Passover will be like no other for all of us. Most of us will be separated from close family and friends for the first time during a holiday most noted for bringing us together. But the forced separation makes us appreciate loved ones that much more. May we never again take for granted their presence in our lives.

Our synagogues are closed. Was there ever a time in Jewish history when there were no minyanim, no services, anywhere in the world? On Shabbat, and holidays like Passover, we bond with fellow worshipers, and our souls are lifted when we join our voices in prayer. Now, praying alone, may we truly appreciate those moments of harmony in the stillness around us.

Saddest of all, people we know are falling victim to the virus, and we can’t be there to visit the sick or pay personal tribute, at a funeral or shiva, to those who have died. But the same technology that we sometimes scorned for being too much with us is now a godsend, allowing us to participate by video in communal prayer, conversations with friends and family, and, most poignantly, in virtual shiva visits that allow both mourner and guest to share emotional time together.

If there is any meaning to be found in Passover arriving this year at a moment when the coronavirus is predicted to peak in the New York area, maybe it’s to remind us of the essence of the festival. Passover is the most celebrated of all on the Jewish calendar because its message of redemption, freedom and faith is universal and eternal. We mark the dramatic origin and rescue of the Jewish People, lifted from slavery and, with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit, miraculously transported through the Red Sea, set on the path to their future and forever homeland.

Yes, that path was arduous and took 40 years. In a larger sense, the journey and struggle has never ended. But we as a people have learned patience, and faith in tomorrow. We have long been used to waiting for the night sky to give way to the dawn, and we’ve been anticipating the Messiah forever. So, this seder night, let us give full voice when we end the night with an amended phrase, praying: “Next year in Jerusalem — or at least with one another.”

Chag sameach.

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