By Nancy Cohen Israel
Mah Nishtanah Halaila Hazeh? How is this night different from all other nights? Let me count the ways. Oct. 20 and March 9 are the two dates that turned our year, and by extension, our Passover upside down. On Oct. 20, our neighborhood sat in the path of the EF-3 tornadoes that tore a 15-mile swath of destruction across Dallas. It destroyed homes, shattered businesses and uprooted trees, including our magnificent, century old oak. Pulled out by the roots, she punctured holes across our roof while also piercing a hole through our newly renovated kitchen walls and ceiling. With the kitchen out of commission, we had to move out. Four months later, a silent assassin slithered into town. On March 9, the city learned of its first positive case of COVID-19. Here is how our Passover was different from all other nights:
On all other nights, we are at home. On this night we are still living in a rental house. When reconstruction began on our home, I hoped we could be back by Passover. While work continues, the virus has slowed the movement and availability of materials. In the meantime, the ritual objects that we normally take for granted are in storage. Improvising a Seder plate was easy. Piecing together a Haggadah was a different story. Deliverance arrived with a Haggadah that was part of a fundraising solicitation by an organization supported by my late mother-in-law. While we still send them a check every year, I usually put these Haggadahs into the giving away pile as soon as they arrive. This year it was a lifeline as we scoured the house for chametz.
On all other nights, we host a large crowd for the first Seder. On this night, there would be three of us. When we realized that we would still be in temporary housing for the holiday, we had grand plans of renting tables and chairs to accommodate our usual crowd of 20-30 guests. With the state of emergency declared on March 13, the list quickly melted and suddenly only included my siblings and their families. With 10 of us, we were within the recommended limit for the number of people who could convene. When the shelter in place order went out, 10 days later, I called my siblings and told them to stay home. Our shrunken Seder now included just my husband, my daughter and me.
On all other nights, the house is sparkling clean and we are settled as we celebrate our freedom. On this night, we are in transition. As Passover is my best excuse to thoroughly clean the house, I usually get to work cleaning, sorting and discarding early in the year. On the day of the first Seder, with tasks completed, liberation absolutely feels at hand. It is my favorite day of the year. This year, rather than standing on the shores of the Red Sea, anticipating freedom, I am seeing that beacon of hope from afar. It’s coming but we still have some walking to do. Eventually, we’ll move back into a clean house. In the meantime, we are starting to bundle our belongings for the inevitable return move, which may or may not be sooner rather than later.
On all other nights, we use our Passover dishes and cooking implements. On this night, we use our regular dishes. There was no way we were going to schlep all of our Passover dishes, pots, pans and utensils with us when there stood a glimmer of hope that we could be home by now. So it is all in storage. Even though growing up it was never my family’s custom to change anything, it is a tradition I adopted with my husband when we got married 20 years ago. It now feels strange to use our regular pots and pans. As I prepared to start cooking, I couldn’t even think of what pots to use to cook recipes that I have been making for years. It was only as I started to cook, with the familiar smells wafting through the kitchen, that it began to feel like Passover.
Since this is the year that everyone has had to adapt, we were able to participate in our Temple’s congregational Seder through Zoom on the first night and a family Seder with out-of-town in-laws on the second night. Even though it had the same glitchy things that any Seder has, albeit these were technological in nature, it felt good to be among community. Sitting at our small but still full table, this provided a sense of togetherness in these otherwise isolating times.
While physically displaced and socially distanced, we remain grateful that we are safe and we are healthy. And rather than the traditional yearnings of future Seders in Jerusalem, we are hoping for something more modest. As one of my disinvited guests emailed to say “Next year in person!” When that day comes, then we will truly rejoice in the Promised Land of home.
Nancy Cohen Israel is a Dallas-based arts writer and art historian.