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Lessons from Bubbe for this pandemic Passover

Oy vey! It’s a pandemic Passover.

The good news is you don’t have to sit next to Uncle Morty again this year and hear the same story about the time he found that heirloom stamp that was worth 300 times what he paid for it in 1987. You can just mute him on Zoom.

The bad news is there’s always next year.

Passover in a pandemic year feels a bit, well, redundant. The holiday, which starts at sundown on Saturday, March 27, and lasts for seven days, celebrates — you guessed it — the Feast of the Unleavened Bread. This refers to the bread Jewish slaves made to sustain themselves along the escape route from Egypt, which they didn’t have time to allow to rise. Hence, constipating matzo was born.

Passover is not quite as titillating as say, Christmas, which celebrates birth with a large man sneaking presents into your house, or Holi, the beautiful Hindu festival of colors to celebrate love.

We Jews tend to be a more cynical people. The happiest holiday we have is Rosh Hashanah, the new year, and we celebrate with an apple and follow with 10 days of apologizing and then fasting. Or there’s Purim, where we drown out the sound of a bad man’s name by spinning metal noisemakers that can slice a finger off.

Passover commemorates the story of Jewish slaves escaping their Egyptian owners and racing through diverse landscapes like desert and a magical sea that parted so that they could cross and escape their captors. It has been celebrated since at least the fifth century BC, but feels less foreign now than ever before.

In a year where emergency mode has been our default, learning about the plagues that make up the story of Passover while living through a real-life plague is a bit like looking in the mirror. Some of the plagues in the Passover story — locusts, boils, cattle disease — don’t feel half as bad as the Covid-19 contagion we’ve been battling. Can I trade you a deadly virus for some hail? Gladly!

Instead of Moses asking the Pharaoh to free the Jewish slaves and wreaking havoc with 10 plagues — by way of the guy upstairs — when he refused, we have Dr. Fauci asking the US government to implement 10 measures to soften the blunt of Covid-19. Instead of a burning bush where God talks to Moses, we have Twitter. It’s all parallel.

My Bubbe, aka Jewish grandmother, lived to the ripe age of 96 and never for a moment stopped nagging. Sigh. She would have had some sage advice for those of us still on this Earth and living through a pandemic Passover. After all, she survived the last global pandemic in 1918, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the repressive ’50s, Vietnam, the recession of the ’70s, the bad hair of the ’80s, and neon and troll dolls in the ’90s.

I channel her here for your benefit and education. Here are Bubbe’s top lessons to get through a pandemic Passover.

Chicken soup really does cure all

In a year when we have had to forgo human contact and live in a state of near-constant panic about losing our health, our jobs, our sanity, Bubbe’s claim that chicken soup cures all is not far off. Dubbed the “Jewish Penicillin,” chicken soup is a Passover tradition served at the seder, or meal that you embark on during the holiday. The herbaceous broth dotted with bright carrots and celery feels like the warm hug we haven’t had in more than a year. Drop a matzo ball in there for good measure and to feel it sitting in your gut like a cement brick for the balance of the day.

Don’t eat the seder plate

At the center of the table on Passover is a seder plate, or a carefully staged plate divided into six sections with symbolic food. The ritual items — the shank bone, karpas (a vegetable dipped in salt water), chazeret (bitter herb), charoset (diced nuts and apples and wine), maror (another bitter herb), and egg — symbolize parts of the Passover story: sacrifice, tears, the bricks the Jews laid as slaves. Really, they represent the suffering of the Jewish people as they endured slavery and then a life on the run to secure their freedom.

You will get hungry as you endure the whole seder — or ritual story and prayers — before it comes time to eat, but I assure you it isn’t fun to consume the items on the seder plate. Just admire it. From a distance.

Suffering is in the eye of the beholder

You can complain about being on lockdown and not being able to compete in that soccer tournament or meet your friends for happy hour at the new bar, or you can be grateful that you are alive enough to yearn for those simple pleasures we’ve had to forgo. Bubbe says stop complaining, or she will give you something to complain about. I can tell you from firsthand experience (oy, my tuchas) — she is not messing around.

Guilt will get you far

This isn’t a Passover tradition so much as a strategy for manipulating people into getting what you want. Guilt is a powerful lever you can pull. Bubbe says all you have to do is purse your lips the next time you ask for something and add, “If you love me, you will…” to the front of any ask (unless it’s your boss or that person standing next to you at the bus stop).

We must help one another

Moses wasn’t immediately keen on speaking up, but when prompted by the greatest influencer at the time, he stood up to help those most marginalized. Jews were slaves more than once throughout history. So were so many other groups. We should look at Passover as a reminder to all those who inhabit majority identity categories to stand up for others.

Don’t question the gefilte fish

I have tried. Bubbe hit me over the head with a newspaper. Seriously, though, what is in that stuff?

Whether you are celebrating Passover for the first time or the 68th time, this year brings the time-honored holiday into newfound relevance as we navigate an actual plague while retelling the story of how others a long time ago survived their own. Maybe a thousand years from now, people will sit around a table (on Mars?) and recount the tale of the people on great planet Earth in the 20th year of the 21st Century who survived a plague with toilet paper and starter yeast.

For now, though, we raise a glass during this pandemic Passover, as many have done for hundreds of years before us, and say, “l’chaim” to life. And mean it. Bubbe would have liked that part.

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