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PASSOVER

The year of the pandemic Passover

There will be no cramming in around tables, no sharing of a holiday meal. But no matter how small and subdued the Seder, people still want to eat.

In 2013, Rabbi Keith Stern used Skype to video stream with two of his children who live elsewhere during a Seder meal. An iPad or laptop and Seder plate will coexist on the family table during Seder once again this year, in many more households, because of social distancing.
In 2013, Rabbi Keith Stern used Skype to video stream with two of his children who live elsewhere during a Seder meal. An iPad or laptop and Seder plate will coexist on the family table during Seder once again this year, in many more households, because of social distancing.Jonathan.Wiggs/Globe Staff/file

Every year the Zimman clan has a Passover Seder with so many guests there’s no room in their homes for everyone to gather. So for the last six years they’ve held the Seder at Zimman’s, the family’s fourth-generation decorative fabric and home decor store in downtown Lynn.

On the second floor — the home furnishings level — they push aside the sofas, rugs, mirrors, lamps, and tchotchkes and make room for tables and 55 chairs.

They prop up photographs of family members long gone, and there, atop Level One (Decorative Textiles) and the basement level (Accessories and Notions) they do what Jews around the world always do at this ritual spring festival, which begins the evening of April 8: retell the story of the Jews’ liberation from Egyptian bondage more than 3,000 years ago. The Seder is led by Jon Zimman, one of five brothers whom they’ve affectionately nicknamed “Sergeant Seder.”

The Zimmans have observed Passover as a family for more than a century and have never missed a single one, not even in 1995 when matriarch Phyllis Zimman was diagnosed with cancer in March and spent part of the Seder in bed. “She said, ‘I don’t care if we eat popcorn, we’re having Passover,’” recalled her daughter-in-law Ellen Rovner.

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But this is the year of the Pandemic Passover, which has thrown a matzo wrench into their observance along with everyone else’s. For the Zimman family, there will be no multigenerational gathering in the store or anywhere else, and none of the age-old rituals that involve sharing symbolic foods. No passing around a bowl of water to wash hands. No cauldrons of matzo ball soup, no heaping platters of brisket, gefilte fish, and chopped liver. No hiding the afikomen — a broken piece of matzo, the unleavened bread eaten at Passover — and then searching for it under the rugs for sale and behind the wall mirrors.

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Instead, the family members are resigned to eating at home and connecting to one another for a Seder via Zoom, the video chat service. We’re calling it a “Zoom Zeder,” said company owner Michael Zimman, trying to sound upbeat. “It’s a loss. We’re all trying to get creative and keep our spirits up.”

Such is the challenge, this year, of the Passover Seder, perhaps the most widely observed Jewish holiday ritual in the United States, according to a 2013 Pew Research survey of American Jewry. Rooted in symbolism, it is one of the most anticipated but also labor-intensive Jewish holidays, involving “a ton of running around and buying things from multiple stores,” said Jamie Darsa who has two young children and keeps a kosher home in Dedham. For her this means getting rid of all food with restricted ingredients, cleaning out all her pantries and cabinets, and switching her usual dishes and cooking tools for those she uses only on the eight days of Passover.

This year Jews everywhere are wrestling with the question: How is this Seder different from all other Seders? ― to paraphrase a key reading in the Hagaddah, the book that tells the story of Passover.

The Internet has exploded with irony and dark humor about it. (You still wash your hands at the Seder table — you just do it constantly!) But for many, the Passover themes of plagues and freedom will be very unsettling. Passover this year “will be smaller and have some sense of being lonely,” said Miriam May, CEO of Friends of the Arava Institute in Newton, a Newton-based nonprofit that works on environmental issues with young people in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.

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May, who has four children, would normally invite 20 people to her Seder; this year she thinks there will be a total of four. “It’s lost a lot of its charm by losing all its people,” she said.

“This year’s Passover is a whole new phenomenon,” said Rabbi Keith Stern of Temple Beth Avodah in Newton. “Because as so many of us know, the quintessence of Passover is to be squeezed in a table, close, elbow to elbow. The laughter and the singing and the food. . . . That’s the core of the Passover experience.”

No matter how small and subdued the Seder, though, people still want to eat. But who has the energy (or fortitude) to brave supermarkets and kosher markets for the fixings for a Seder meal of gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, potato kugel, brisket, and a whole lot more. Let alone hunt for more obscure items like syrupy wine for the haroset (a mixture of apple, nuts, and wine that represents the mortar and bricks used by enslaved Jews); and a shank bone to remember the paschal lamb that was sacrificed before the Jews left Egypt. And schlepping everything home with rubber gloves and spraying the packaging with disinfectant, as public health officials recommend.

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Passover displays at Wegman's, next to empty paper product shelves.
Passover displays at Wegman's, next to empty paper product shelves.Linda Matchan for The Boston Globe

Apparently a lot of people are up to the job. The Butcherie in Brookline, the Boston area’s largest kosher market, has been staying open until 2 a.m. a few days a week “and literally they are still standing in line at a quarter to 2,” said Denice Goguen, director of catering. She said the store is trying to accommodate Passover shoppers as well as minimize the number of people shopping at any one time. Still, shoppers are nervous.

“I had someone in with a full-blown black gas mask, with the big nose thing. I could only see his eyes,” said Goguen. “He said, ‘I’m not sick.’ I said, ‘Take that stupid thing off!’ ”

Many have decided to skip cooking altogether and are opting for catering.

“It’s kind of chaos right now,” said Andrew Wiener, co-owner of Catering by Andrew, the largest kosher caterer in Greater Boston. “We typically do a Passover business where people order Seder packages for at least 10 people; I think the average Seder is between 15-20 people.”

Athough Seders will be smaller this year, orders are pouring in from whole new categories of people. Young people who are clueless about making a Seder (or in some cases even cooking) because they’ve always been invited to someone else’s. Older people who are staying home to be safe, “and now they need to be fed.” The Passover travelers who go away every year to kosher hotels or resorts that host huge group Seders, but whose trips have been canceled and they’re on their own. “Cancun, Italy, Prague, God knows how many programs there are,” Wiener said. “I know five or six families alone who were supposed to go to Israel but aren’t going.”

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Many of those who are cooking at home — for themselves, their families, or to share with friends — are opting to simplify. Miriam May will make a hazelnut torte for dessert; it only has four ingredients (eggs, sugar, ground nuts, and vanilla sugar). Leora Fishman, a Lexington physician, will make an uncomplicated carrot soup that can be made with any number of different seasonings and still taste good.

“My husband and I made the decision to lower our expectations,” said Jamie Darsa, who works for Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston. “This should not feel normal. The main thing is that this is a plague that we are all living through. Obviously we are hoping we survive, but we can all learn something from it.”

A major concern in the Jewish community are the people who lack access to a holiday meal because they are socially isolated, elderly, or food insecure. For the first time, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, a large Jewish nonprofit organization, is working with kosher caterers to prepare and distribute 3,000 “Seder in a Box” packages for people in need in Greater Boston.

Funded by a new Coronavirus Emergency Fund, half the boxes will include a full Passover meal and ritual items traditionally found on the Seder table, including a box of matzo, salt water, and a shank bone; and half will contain just the ritual items. The idea is to help people to feel a sense of community even if they’re alone, said Sarah Abramson, CJP senior vice president, Strategy and Impact.

“We can’t replace the actual feeling of Passover," she said. “But we can remind people we are all in this together.”

Linda Matchan can be reached at linda_matchan@hotmail.com