How to Host a Virtual Passover Seder
Virtual Seders have some advantages, allowing you to honor old traditions and make new ones. Here's how to host your own, plus virtual Seders you can join.
In my house, Passover was always a little different. Not this different of course, not Zoom Seders and DIY masks and social distancing and high anxiety and jokes about COVID-19 being the 11th plague. But different still.
I grew up in Queens; my parents divorced when I was young and I split time between my Persian mother and Ashkenazi father. Passover was usually with my mom, at my maternal grandmother's house in Kew Gardens. Bibi, as we called her, was the matriarch, inviting the entire extended clan to sit around a table that resembled The Last Supper, but with way more food and a little-kids' table tacked on at the very end.
For us, Sephardic Jews, some traditions are the same—four cups of wine (about what I drink daily now, after homeschooling, writing, cooking and cleaning, if I am honest), the four questions, the recitation of the ten plagues, the songs, the hide-and-seek game of the Afikomen, and the ceremonial Seder plate with bitter herbs, a shank bone, a roasted egg, salt water and charoset.
But in my Bibi's house, a Persian house, we had a few other tricks up our sleeves. First, we ate rice. Lots of rice—rice with dill, rice stained with saffron, jeweled rice with sour cherries, orange peel, pistachios and braised beef, and rice with crispy golden crusts that resembled Frisbee-size potato pancakes. Rice was not permitted in Ashkenazi households and it was something that made life during those ten days more bearable for a carb-addicted kid (and adult).
The Haggadahs we used were not in English. They were written in Farsi and Hebrew, neither of which I could read very well. Most of the time we would all just crack up while listening to various family members' feeble attempts at reading in another language. There was often a relative or a friend who'd want to show off and add some lengthy rabbinical interpretation of a particular passage. We would all sit in icy silence waiting for it to end so we could more quickly get to the main meal. Usually they were so horrified by the stony stares they never attempted that again.
And then there were the scallions. In our Persian family, when it came time to sing the Dayenu—think of it as the title track on the classic Passover album, the "My Shot" if you will—we were each armed with scallions. While singing the Dayenu, we would run around the table with our scallion whips, and flog each other to commemorate the way the Jews were beaten when they were enslaved in Egypt. Are you getting a visual? All the children, parents, grandparents, neighbors and friends running around the crowded table, lashing each other with spring onions? By the song's end, the floor would be strewn with the battered green scallion corpses and we would all return to the table slightly drunk and breathless with hysterical laughter. It was (and still is) my favorite part of every Seder.
And now, here we are in this new normal where an invisible yet deadly pathogen has changed our world so that communities are sheltering in place, families are separated, friends are grieving, and Seders are being held in cloistered groups connected by Wi-Fi.
For many of us, this means a virtual Seder. While this has its downsides—an in-person gathering is more intimate and allows for easier connecting, socializing and eating—I am actually looking forward to my virtual Seder because it will mean a larger one than in recent years.
The days of Bibi's big Passovers sadly died when she did, and my extended family has had its own diaspora spread out across the country, making it difficult to meet for a Seder without a lot of expensive air travel and accommodations. So lately our Seder has been rather small, just me and my husband, Craig, and our kids, Emily and Sam, at my dad's house or my mom's apartment, with our scallions and four (or fourteen) cups of wine. Small, but still perfectly hilarious, wonderful and memorable.
But this year, we are having two big virtual Seders. There will be over a dozen of us each night on Zoom, counting my immediate family, along with in-laws, cousins, grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews. The whole mishpacha!
While we won't be physically together, let's be honest, social distance has its advantages. Not sure how things are in your family, but in mine there are heated political differences and some not-so-great family dynamics. A few of us don't get along at all, and having to see each other on a computer screen rather than in person makes it that much easier to manage; the "no video" and "mute" buttons have their advantages.
It's also somewhat easier on the cooks; while a big feast may sound great in theory, a virtual potluck means everyone cooks what works for their own clan—vegans, vegetarians, those with allergies or other dietary preferences can prepare whatever suits them. So you don't have to figure out how to make a gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free dessert! But if you want to, by all means check this one out.
While we will engage in our first ever socially distant Seder, we will still be able to bond, and still be able to share and feel like we are together. And most importantly, we can still whip each other with scallions—even on Zoom, which may not be as much fun as lashing each other in person, but I imagine no less hilarious. I feel like Bibi would approve.
How to Have a Socially Distant Seder
Link Up Online
To bring your socially distant relatives and friends into your home, sign up for a free account with Zoom. While there are troll issues, it seems to be the most universal platform and relatively easy to use for all generations. Get into the Passover spirit and add a customized background screen with one of these images the Jewish museum is offering from their collection.
Take It Easy on Yourself with the Menu
This year's Passover meal may be very different from meals past. Repeat after me: "That's OK. Don't worry." If it's one thing you don't need right now, it's more stress. So, if you can't find a brisket at the butcher, make a crispy roasted chicken and roasted veggie mash or balsamic roasted vegetables. You may want to make matzo ball soup and potato kugel, but it's not the end of the world to make a vegetable soup or this beautiful sweet potato Pommes Anna. Take it easy on yourself and make what you can from your pantry and whatever's at your local butcher. Or order in some takeout. Who will know? Enjoy—and be safe when shopping.
It's probably a good idea to all agree in advance on what Haggadah you will use. If you have a die-hard crew, you can download and print your own full-length version, or write your own. Or follow my lead and do the 30-minute version here. I find a half-hour is the perfect amount of time for a robust Seder that doesn't leave the kids (and let's face it, the grown-ups too) drooping from hunger and boredom.
An Alternative to the Four Questions
This year the question "Why is this night different than every other night?" perhaps warrants some deeper reflection, for all of us.
So consider posing some questions at the Seder or even beforehand for your guests to think about. (We all have plenty of time to do that.) Ask your family members to make a list of four reflections of gratitude or four new observations about themselves since the pandemic began. Perhaps they can share new hobbies they have explored or new books they have read, or everyone can collect four words or passages of inspiration and joy to share before the Seder to discuss.
Melissa De Lowe, a Jewish educator in Brooklyn, says it's important to lean in with kids and really explore with them how this night is different from all other nights. "The reality is that our Passover Seder will look and feel different than any other Seder we have ever experienced," she said. "It is important to have a meaningful conversation about what has changed and use it as a prompt for kids to process what is happening. We have to give kids another space to think deeply about what it means to observe Passover and to create connection during this pandemic. And any processing that a child needs to do right now, the grown-up probably needs to do even more. We are in this triage state at the moment and a large majority of us have not processed enough emotionally and psychologically. This is a leveling moment for all of us."
Join a Virtual Seder—with Celebrities
Don't have a Seder planned? Join a virtual Seder. There are many happening across the country. The folks at Russ & Daughters are hosting one with special guests Andy Nyman, Elvis Costello & Diana Krall, friends and family, and musical guests Lorin Sklamberg (of The Klezmatics) and Alex Weiser (of YIVO). City Winery in New York is hosting one too. And Ben Platt, Idina Menzel and more will host a Saturday night Seder.
Seder 2020 offers a list of everything you need for a virtual Seder and a selection of Seders you can join.
Share on Social
Use the hashtag #ShowUsYourSeder by sharing photos from your Seder plate or table on social media.
For the Kids
I don't know about yours, but my kids tend to get restless at the table. It's nice to set up some Passover activities for them. Check these out from The Jewish Museum.