Add the Passover Seder to the long list of things (cabinet meetings, university classes, book launches, yoga …) likely to be conducted via Zoom in these pandemic times.

The week-long Passover holiday, which begins on Wednesday evening, is among the most important in the Jewish calendar. It is kicked off by the Seder, a lengthy (but fun! and child-friendly!) traditional service families conduct themselves in their own homes over a dinner that includes many symbolic, obligatory foods.

It’s not uncommon for groups of 30 or more extended family and friends to gather each year over homemade gefilte fish, matzo ball soup and song to celebrate the Israelites’ freedom from bondage in Egypt, the story told in the Book of Exodus. Many extended Jewish families gather just twice a year — at Thanksgiving and at Passover. In short, it’s a big deal.

Every spring, Cape Elizabeth resident Rachel Stamieszkin and her immediate family celebrate one Seder in Philadelphia with the extended family. (They celebrate a second in Maine, with a large, dear group of old friends.) Said the retired Unum project engineer, “I have never missed it since I was born.”

She’ll miss it this year.

TRADITION, TRADITION

At the end of March, Jewish families in Greater Portland were just beginning to confront the new 2020 Passover reality (or year 5780, according to the Jewish calendar). Since actual get-togethers are off the table, many said they were trying — or their children or grandchildren were trying — to arrange virtual get-togethers over the conferencing app Zoom. As with all of our many much-anticipated now canceled, postponed and mutated events in the era of coronavirus, emotions ranged from disappointment to anxiety, from resignation to hope.

Count retired teacher Bobbie Gordon among the hopeful. Gordon and her husband, George, made the return trip from Florida, where they spend winters, several weeks earlier than usual and in record time — two long, exhausting days of driving, stopping in parking lots to sleep in their car for short spells because they didn’t want to risk hotels. He is 80. She is 77. It was their first morning back in Raymond, on the shores of Sebago Lake, and she was thrilled to be home.

Normally, the Gordons stop in New Jersey or Brookline, Massachusetts, to pick up a kosher brisket for the Seder. This year, concerned about the pandemic, they skipped that, and barreled north. If they have to eat scrambled eggs for the holiday, Gordon joked, that’ll be fine. She doesn’t expect to, though. She thinks grocery stores will be replenished by the many 18-wheelers that shared the highways with them. “It’s one of the great miracles,” she said, “all along the way during the night. They are probably stocking the grocery stores. There are so many miracles that are happening. People are taking chances with their lives to keep their livelihoods going and to provide for us at the same time.”

Bobbie Gordon’s mother compiled this cookbook when she was the Hadassah chapter president in Elmira, New York. “The recipe she was known for was the Nut Cake recipe she made and passed out to many, many families in the community. One could identify her recipes in this book by her lack of name, Ruth Kornfeld,” her daughter wrote in an email. When Gordon was a little girl, family Seders went as late as 1 a.m. Photo courtesy of Bobbie Gordon

Three of her four children, and all of her grandchildren, live nearby, in Yarmouth, House Island and Cape Elizabeth. Still, they won’t share the Seder table this year. Nor will she be able to invite her new Mainer mentees from Djibouti as she’d planned. (Many Jewish families make it a tradition to invite outsiders to the Seder, both Jews who have no place to go as well as non-Jews who might enjoy the unfamiliar celebration.) Instead, inspired by a young family member’s Zoom bat mitzvah a few weeks ago, they plan to celebrate virtually.

Every year, Gordon takes time to tweak the content of the service, which is laid out in a text called the Haggadah. While it has many inviolable elements, Jewish families often adapt it to incorporate current events, such as women’s rights, the Civil Rights movement and 9/11. “I will try to make sure we are doing the past, the present and the future,” she said, pandemic or no. “I think that’ll be very important. The Seder continues.”

SEDER SORROWS

It may not for North Deering resident Jody Sleeper, not this year anyway. For more than 25 years, she has celebrated with two other local families, a close-knit group of 15 to 20, depending on the year. Some years, four generations have gathered at one table to celebrate. The families alternate houses each year, and divvy up the labor-intensive, elaborate cooking, which can require complicated grocery shopping, especially for those who keep kosher. Their children grew up together. Some Passover stories are legendary within the group and, like the service itself, retold each year with relish  — like the time Adam (Sleeper’s son), then about 9, and Shana (the daughter of another family), also 9 or so, had an “epic fight over the matzo.” (After the Seder dinner, traditionally children hunt for the afikomen, a piece of hidden matzo; matzo is a symbolic cracker that must be eaten over the holiday in place of bread).

But Sleeper, a self-described worrier in the best of times, just isn’t feeling it this year. “I don’t want to hang around the supermarket too long,” she said. “I’m probably not going to Skype either. To be honest, there are so many other things I am worried about right now. At this point, for me, celebrating a Seder would take more energy than I have. I just can’t do it.”

Stamieszkin can relate. She was considering suggesting a Zoom celebration to her family and friends, but her feelings were decidedly mixed. Although the start of the holiday was still two weeks off, she was already mourning the loss of their profoundly important, deeply communal meal. “The whole thing is making me feel really sad,” she said. “There is a piece of the sadness that’s so strong about not being together that I wonder, do I even want to broach (the subject of a Zoom Seder)?”

“I am trying to take advantage,” Stamieszkin continued. “I am taking my yoga class online, which is wonderful, but it’s not the same as being in the room. It feels like it’s a tease. I can’t reach out and touch my kids. I’m excited we have some way. On the other hand, it doesn’t really cut it.”

MAKING CONNECTIONS

Barbara Merson, executive director of the Maine Jewish Film Festival (postponed from springtime until the fall), is taking advantage of the possibilities of the internet. For the first time ever, the American family plans to celebrate the Seder with its extended Israeli family, thanks to Zoom. There are details to work out — the Israeli branch is Orthodox, so by religious law may not use the computer or phone during the holiday. Add to that a 7-hour time difference. Merson’s father, who is nearly 100 and lives at The Cedars Portland, a retirement community, will likely have to join by phone, as he’s unaccustomed to the computer. But they’ll figure it out, said Merson, who lives in North Yarmouth.

“What we’re doing is saying the essence of the Seder is to get together as a family and do things that we usually do for a Seder. If that means we are doing it a day earlier, that’s fine,” she said. “What’s really important is the connection part of this. Honestly, I don’t know why we never thought about doing (Zoom) before.”

As for the special holiday foods? “We’ll do the best we can.”

(Don’t worry on that account, Rabbi Jared Saks of Bet Ha’am reform temple in South Portland reassured. “If people can’t get their hands on matzo, it’s not the end of the world. There is a traditional obligation to eat matzo on the first night, but one of the most important things in this moment is our flexibility, to not beat ourselves up if we can’t do it the way that we always have.”)

Portland resident Mimi Levy enjoying a Seder meal two years ago at her daughter’s home in Cambridge. On the menu: brisket with potatoes, chicken, matzoh farfal kugel, sweet potato casserole, and asparagus. Photo courtesy of Mimi Levy

Portland resident Mimi Levy, a retired psychologist, is also planning a simpler meal and smaller guest list than usual (just her and her husband), and an online gathering. She canceled her annual celebration early, in mid-March, anxious about her pregnant daughter and the health of older guests, including herself. Originally, her brother had planned to drive up from Connecticut with his kids; her daughter, son-in-law and grandchild were coming from Boston; and friends from Portland would be there, too. Instead, everybody will hunker down in their respective homes. “It’s a great holiday for family and food,” Levy said. “We celebrate. We eat. We pray. We laugh. Of course, we were disappointed — but health first.”

Likewise for Susie Schwartz, a lawyer who lives in Portland — a big family; a big, multi-generational and normally geographically diverse gathering canceled; and Zoom enlisted to save the day. For Schwartz, there’s a small silver lining. “Everyone will have to do their own food,” she laughed, “so it’ll be easier on me. I am not cooking for 30. I might only be cooking for two.”

Admittedly, one aspect of this Zoom thing has her a little worried. Her family talked via the app in late March, to check in and ward off isolation. But everybody talked at once. “The one problem — you can see how talkative I am,” Schwartz said. “If you put in more of my siblings, a bunch who have the same genetics, it can be quite chaotic.”

She hopes the Seder will go more smoothly. The word Seder itself means “order,” for the 15 orderly, prescribed steps in the evening, which encompass symbolic rituals like eating vegetables dipped in salt water, eating bitter herbs and reciting blessings over matzo and wine. “Everybody is supposed to give everybody a turn,” Schwartz said.

Rabbi Erica Asch, left, leads congregation Temple Beth El in Augusta in singing opening prayers during a communal Passover Seder two years ago. Such gatherings have been canceled this year because of the coronavirus. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

FINDING RESONANCE

Two of the 15 steps, step 1 and step 6, involve washing hands. (Any number of Passover jokes going around on social media suggest doing that step over and over and over this year.) It’s one of the many resonances of the Seder service with the current crisis. Most obviously, the 10 plagues. According to the Passover story, God visited 10 plagues upon the Egyptian people – things like bugs, boils and pestilence – as a way to apply a little forceful persuasion on the Pharaoh to let the Jews go. Reciting the plagues is one of the highlights of the Seder service for children, the ceremonial equivalent of playing with squishy, oozy Slime.

While self-isolation is hardly slavery, Levy says, still this year she is thinking less about the freedom that the holiday celebrates and more about the bondage her long-ago ancestors suffered. Schwartz finds the story of Passover especially comforting right now. “If they could survive Egypt, we can get through isolation,” she said, “some of us in pretty nice houses.”

Traditionally, the Seder ends with the line “Next year in Jerusalem,” which is intended to express the longing of Jews around the world for the land of Israel. Stamieszkin has modified her Seder wishes for the future. “It is my hope that I can celebrate Passover this year with a Seder that is meaningful and tides me over until next year,” she said. “What I am hoping for is that next year we can all be together, physically together, as we have in the past, that we don’t lose anybody along the way.”

As Rabbi Saks gave his 4-year-old son a bath, spoke with a reporter by telephone, and contemplated the logistics of arranging the synagogue’s annual second-night communal Seder on Zoom – like the rest of us, multitasking in the time of coronavirus – he related a biblical story. The prophet Moses is arguing with Pharaoh to let his people leave Egypt. “Pharaoh has hemmed and hawed,” Saks said. ” ‘You can go. No you can’t. You can go. No you can’t.’ ” Pharaoh finally relents and grants the Jews permission to go on the condition that they leave their “flocks” and “herds” behind. Moses counters that they don’t know if they will need the animals to worship, for sacrifice, when they get where they are going.

“So there’s that moment when we’re leaving,” Rabbi Saks said, “we don’t know where we are going. We don’t know what we will need when we get there, but we know we will worship. We will praise God when we get there. I think that is going to be the story of this Passover …We know there will be celebration, celebration and mourning, when we get through this, but we know we are going to get through this.”


Haroset

Recipe courtesy of Bobbie Gordon. Haroset, or charoset, has many symbolic meanings on the Passover table, among them that it represents the mortar to adhere bricks that the enslaved Jews used to build Egyptian cities. The recipe comes from “Marlene Sorosky’s Year-round Holiday Cookbook.” “I gave this to everybody. Oh my gosh. It’s just a wonderful book,” Gordon said. 

Makes about 3 cups 

1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped dates
4 tablespoons red wine
2 green apples, peeled and chopped (about 3 cups)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, about 4 ounces
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 to 3 tablespoons sugar

In a small bowl, soak the raisins and dates in the red wine for several hours or overnight.

In a food processor with a metal blade or in a mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients together. The consistency may be as coarse or fine as you prefer.

Steamed Halibut in Borscht with Warm Chive-Horseradish Sauce

Marty Merson, husband of Barbara, is the Passover chef in his family, and likes to make this recipe from a 1999 New York Times story, which, in turn, credits Le Bernadin chef Eric Ripert. Marty Gerson offers notes on making it below the recipe. 

Yield: 8 servings 

2 tablespoons olive oil or corn oil
1 medium onion, julienned
1 cup julienned fennel
2 tablespoons sliced garlic
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
1 cup chopped savoy cabbage, plus 3 of the darker outer leaves, finely julienned
1 quart well-seasoned chicken or vegetable stock
4 cups peeled and julienned fresh beets (about 1 1/2 bunches)
Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
1 cup crème fraîche, sour cream or mayonnaise
1/4 cup prepared white horseradish
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon minced chives
8 halibut steaks or fillets, each 4 to 6 ounces, or 8 portions chilled gefilte fish

Heat oil in a heavy 3-quart saucepan. Add onions and fennel and cook slowly about 5 minutes, until softened. Tie garlic, thyme, parsley and chopped cabbage in a double thickness of cheesecloth and add it to saucepan along with stock and beets. Simmer 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat. Discard cheesecloth and its contents. To serve the dish chilled, refrigerate beet mixture at least 4 hours or overnight.

Bring 3 cups water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add julienned cabbage leaves, cook just until bright green, then drain. Set leaves aside, covered, to keep warm; for a cold dish, refrigerate.

Mix crème fraîche, sour cream or mayonnaise with horseradish, sugar and chives. If using mayonnaise, thin it beforehand with 2 tablespoons water. This sauce can be gently warmed in a small saucepan or chilled to serve cold.

To serve, steam halibut until fully cooked outside and just warm inside, 6 to 8 minutes. Keep warm. Reheat beet mixture, spoon into warmed shallow soup plates, sprinkle with julienned cabbage and top with fish. Or spoon chilled beet mixture into shallow soup plates, add cabbage, and top with gefilte fish. Serve horseradish sauce, warm or chilled, on the side.

MARTY MERSON’S NOTES: I found the cold version much more flavorful and easier to prepare for a crowd. Any mild, firm-fleshed fish can be substituted for the halibut. Cut the fish in portions (fairly small for appetizers), place on cabbage or lettuce leaves and then steam — they’ll be easier to handle. I couldn’t imagine using store-bought gefilte fish for this, not when good fish is easily obtained. The clarity of the borscht is not an issue if you’re not running a 4-star restaurant. I let the chopped cabbage etc. out of the bag and cook them loose in the broth. If it bothers you, straining the broth later is an option. This is a very forgiving recipe. None of the proportions are absolute. I am cavalier with amounts, triple the chives, add dill. I do fortify the stock for a more intense flavor before using it. A fishing friend gave me a tip that I’ve found incredibly useful:  If your fish (or shrimp) isn’t pristine, soak it in some cheap beer for a half hour in the fridge, then drain and pat dry. Try it!

Frozen Macaroon Mousse

Recipe courtesy of Mimi Levy, who got it from a friend. The eggs are not cooked here, so if that is a concern, choose another recipe. To serve the mousse, puree, then sieve some raspberries, lightly sweetening the mix. Puddle the raspberry juice on each plate, next to a slice of mousse, then top the mousse with a few fresh raspberries. 

Serves about 6

3 egg yolks
1/2  cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons rum or Kahlua
1 dozen macaroons, broken up or in crumbs
2 cups heavy cream
Raspberry puree and fresh raspberries for garnish, optional

Beat the egg yolks and sugar together until smooth. Add the rum and beat again. Add the macaroons.

In a separate bowl, whip the cream until to stiff peaks, being careful not to overwhip. Gently fold the cookie mixture into the cream. Transfer to a 9-inch springform pan, cover with waxed paper and freeze until firm. Slice and serve with raspberries, if you like.

This story was updated on April 6 to correct the year on the Jewish calendar. 


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