Ottawa·Point of View

Why this Passover will be unlike any other

This year, a good video link connection could be almost as important a feature of many seders as matzoh, bitter herbs or any other symbolic food that Jews eat during the Passover celebration.   

Jews held seders during Black Death, Spanish flu and SARS

Jews across Ottawa and around the world are finding new ways to keep Passover traditions alive during the coronavirus pandemic, Laurence Wall writes. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

My friend in Westboro had this reply when I asked about her plans for tonight's first seder of the Jewish holiday of Passover.

"First, we're going to loop in Boston, then Ottawa, Seattle, Portland and Stamford, Conn.," she said. "But we've given up trying to connect with Israel because of the time difference."

Boston? Ottawa? Israel? Welcome to Passover 2020, or 5780 in the Hebrew calendar.  

This year, video link apps could be almost as important a feature of many seders as matzoh, bitter herbs or any other symbolic food that Jews eat during the Passover celebration.   

Passover then and now

When I was growing up in Winnipeg in the 1950s and 60s, my family's seders to mark the start of the holiday had 25 to 30 people: aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.   

Passover was, until this year, as much a social holiday as a religious one. It was a time for families to reconnect.

Oh sure, you had to endure discomfort when aunt Sophie pinched your cheek until it almost bled, or when uncle David would offer up his very un-PC views of the world, but they, too, were part of the celebration. 

All that is now history, at least during the pandemic. Physical distancing is the new normal.

The crowded seder as it was celebrated up until 2019 would be dangerous, even fatal in 2020. As of this month, it's also illegal in Ottawa and much of the country for that many people to get together.    

Instead, a number of Jewish families will try to link up with other family members elsewhere. At least one synagogue in Ottawa is offering the entire congregation a chance to take part in a Zoom seder.    

Students at the Ottawa Jewish Community School prepare for Passover in 2018. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Passover and pandemics                        

This won't be the first Passover celebrated during a pandemic.

Jews still held seders during the Black Death in the 14th century, the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic and more recently, the SARS outbreak in 2003.

But if ever a holiday were relevant during a worldwide pandemic, it's Passover.

It recounts the 10 plagues that God used against the ancient Egyptians to try to convince the pharaoh to allow the enslaved Israelites to leave. 

And it was a nasty list: blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the killing of the first-born.

That 10th and final plague was the nastiest of them all. It finally convinced the pharaoh to "let my people go," as Moses had implored.

The Angel of Death passed over (hence the origin of the holiday's name) the Israelite families and spared their first-born because God had told Moses to tell his people to mark the doors of their homes with the blood from a lamb. 

Fallout from COVID-19 

This year, COVID-19 is causing almost unimaginable upheaval around the world, killing more than 80,000 people and counting, and infecting more than 1.4 million, many with life-threatening severity.

The healthy ones haven't been spared, since millions have lost their jobs as businesses and the economy as a whole shut down. Call it the 11th plague.

The world's religions have also struggled during the pandemic because communal worship plays such a key part.

Enter Zoom, the video chat app for businesses that launched in 2013.

The app has seen its popularity skyrocket this year. Zoom is now the world's most popular Apple and Android app.   Its stock price has more than doubled since January. 

People by the millions are using it, including for religious purposes, despite reports of "Zoombombing," where hackers interrupt with profanity or hateful comments.

A traditional Passover meal, prepared at the Ottawa Jewish Community School. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Video chat helps family deal with loss

Earlier this week, dozens of members of Ottawa's Jewish community used Zoom for what may have been a first for this city.

They took part in two days of a virtual shivah, the period of mourning in Judaism after the death of a loved one.  

The community couldn't be there in person to support and pray with the family, so they took to their computers and phones instead.   

Tonight, many families will again use video chats to link families and friends to be a part of the seder.       

The youngest participant will sing The Four Questions, starting with "Why is this night different from all other nights?"

At the end, the participants will sing Next Year in Jerusalem, as they have for hundreds of years.

But many will also no doubt hope that next year's Passover will find a world free of the pandemic, one that will allow a normal seder filled with family and friends sitting at the same table.   

They might even think wistfully of Aunt Sophie's pinches and Uncle David's cringeworthy opinions. Call it the new-old normal.


Laurence Wall presents the news weekdays on CBC Radio One in Ottawa, and is the voice of the National Research Council's official time signal every day at 1 p.m. You can reach him by telegram, carrier pigeon or by email.

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