Table for One

Passover in the Age of Isolation

Solitude is an unprecedented visitor in this year’s Seder celebrations. Here’s how observers are making do.

by:
April  8, 2020
Photo by Meredith Jensen

Table for One is a column by Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


For Max Falkowitz, Passover cooking doesn’t inspire much joy even in the best of times.

“Gefilte fish, a Passover staple, was invented out of some cryptocatholic FOMO from our neighbors outside the ghetto who were eating fish on Fridays,” he says. “My ancestors, in their infinite wisdom, took a bunch of bland, dry white fish, picked apart the meat, bulked it up with eggs and bread, stuffed it back inside the fish skin, and BOILED THE WHOLE THING.”

Falkowitz, a food and travel writer, is among millions who will be spending Passover alone this year due to the global coronavirus pandemic. “Neither of my families are that technically proficient,” he tells me, “so it looks like we'll all be on our own, no Zoom.”

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“Learned so much from this—thank you for gathering these wonderfully varied snapshots of tradition, adaptation, and joy. A v good read. ”
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Others, like cookbook author Adeena Sussman and The Nosher editor Shannon Sarna are celebrating with immediate family only—extended relatives to be teleconferenced in with video services like Zoom, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts.

“My husband and I will be eating a Seder for two at our home in Tel Aviv,” Sussman says. “We had high hopes of sharing the holiday with my husband's kids and our one-year-old granddaughter, but seeing as the new guidelines forbid anyone from venturing more than 100 meters from their home and we don't live on a kibbutz, it ain't happening.”

“My oldest daughter is already feeling very sad,” Sarna adds. “It will be a bit of a mess, but some point of connection is better than nothing.”

For a holiday that’s about connection and interacting with others at the table, this year’s lockdown has meant that observers are having to make decisions about whether or not to break the Jewish law on electricity and technology during Passover. In this unprecedented moment in history, some Israeli rabbis are exempting families from the rule, allowing them to communicate electronically with each other.

The reasons for these rare dispensations are the most interesting. Aside from the obvious ones like self-quarantining for health (especially to protect relatives, parents, and grandparents from infection), rabbis are citing depression and loneliness as further grounds for which to allow for Zoom Seders just this once.

"There are certain Jewish holidays that lend themselves to introspection in solitude, like Yom Kippur for example, but loneliness and Passover don’t really intersect in that way," says writer Valerio Farris, who is spending the holiday quarantined in Spain, miles from his parents and sister who live in Texas. "Not that I had a choice to celebrate alone this year. My mom called with the Zoom link as soon as we found out about the lockdown.”

For Jake Cohen, author of the forthcoming cookbook Jew-ish, this year’s electronic celebration is a no-brainer and will be business as usual: “The meaning of Passover doesn't change, simply the mode of how we connect. I'll be hosting mine through the nonprofit organization OneTable, which is offering digital Haggadot and Zoom links for any family to video chat with their loved ones and have a virtual seder.”

There are certain Jewish holidays that lend themselves to introspection in solitude, like Yom Kippur for example, but loneliness and Passover don’t really intersect in that way.
Valerio Farris

For many, Passover in the age of coronavirus is an opportunity, as well, to break down the original meaning of the holiday, and to find new resonances.

“In the Exodus story, the 10th and final plague was the Angel of Death swooping down and slaying the first-born child of every Egyptian home,” Falkowitz says. “The Jews were told to stay locked inside their homes—quarantined, if you will—with a schmear of lamb's blood on their front doors as a signal for Death to pass over their homes.”

“Many think the holiday is rooted in remembering our time as slaves in Egypt,” Cohen echoes, “but I'd argue that it's more to gather community and spark conversation around the concept of marginalization. The story of Passover is one of perseverance over persecution, but it doesn't live in biblical times. The idea around discussing hardships, celebrating freedom, and planning for a better tomorrow can be projected on any civil rights movement, and is especially relevant today as Jews face a rise in anti-semitism across the world.”

“It’s a political story above all else,” writes Nigella Lawson in Feast, “the story of liberation and the right to self-determination; it’s about the vileness of slavery and refusal to be persecuted. And it is for this reason that many Jews in concentration camps needed to perform some version of the Seder Night service themselves, in whatever way they could.”

“I think we will be focused less on the fancy place settings and more on those sitting beside us (and those who are not),” Sussman says. “This year more than ever, different types of freedom are being challenged. Health and access to healthcare are forms of freedom; financial stability, freedom of movement—they’re all being called into question.”

If there is an even bigger change for people this Passover, it’s likely to be found in the Seder meal itself. The greatest point of concern? Chicken. Meat in general has been a hot commodity in grocery stores across the country as panicked shoppers stockpile everything from flour and yeast to toilet paper and cream cheese.

“I love to make chopped liver, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to get it,” says Sarna, “so we’ll just forget that one, or maybe try a vegetarian ‘liver’ this year, which is usually made with a combination of lentils and mushrooms.”

Sussman is more hopeful that she’ll be able to find a bird: “Since we are only two, I was considering just making a roast chicken. But we have a good friend and neighbor who just had her third child, so I think I will cook a family-sized meal and take it over (they live 100 meters from us).”

“Yeah, no, I am not about to [mess] with a full Passover meal this year,” says David Tamarkin, Digital Director at Epicurious. “I'm not going to make a big batch of matzo ball soup. I'm definitely not going to make a brisket, because I don't eat beef anyway. I can see myself making some chicken-liver mousse and eating it on matzo, maybe charoset.”

Charoset (also spelled haroset) is a paste comprised of apples, nuts, spices, and wine, served at the Seder feast as a symbol of the mortar for the bricks which the Israelites laid for the Egyptians. For many, it’s a welcome sweet addition to an otherwise savory spread.

“Charoset has always been my favorite part of the Seder,” The Jewish Cookbook author Leah Koenig tells me, “and growing up, it was my job to peel and chop the apples for it. My mom would set a big bowl of apples in front of me to make enough charoset for our Seder of 20 to 30 people. This year, one or two apples should more than suffice.”

“I do a pretty dynamite Sephardic charoset that I first learned about when my mom was dating a Moroccan Orthodox Jew ages ago,” Falkowitz says. “It's so good I wind up eating it all through Passover. Basically you rehydrate dried fruits in wine and add a bunch of sweet spices. A little orange blossom water is a nice touch. I play with the recipe every year. I'm sure there's a way to turn it into a power bar or something, because it definitely keeps me feeling nourished while I can't have my staple carbs. It's also much, much better than the limp apples and walnuts charoset I grew up with.”

For some, like Alison Roman, charoset in its most traditional state leaves something to be desired. “It’s always there. I get why it’s there, but it’s not for me,” she says. “It’s like cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving.”

For her New York Times column and accompanying video last week, she developed a recipe for a tarter, less sweet apple salad with crushed walnuts, her stand-in for the classic dish, citing: “Tradition is a beautiful thing, unless it requires you to make something you don’t enjoy making or eating.” For Roman’s friends, who partook in a Passover feast weeks earlier during the video’s filming, this charoset-ish salad was “their favorite part of the whole meal.”

There’s a theme in these conversations: Whether they love it or hate it, charoset means a lot to people, especially this year.

“It’s what the food says that really counts,” says Amanda Dell, Program Director at the Jewish Food Society, which archives family recipes and documents the histories tied to those heirloom dishes. The latest recipe: a charoset from a Tunisian woman named Aline Dora Darmon.

For Dell, charoset is about connection. “I grew up in New York eating traditional Ashkenazi charoset. But there’s a diverse community around the world, each region with its own celebration of the dish—like Persian charoset, which features bananas, and this Mexican charoset, which has orange juice. I love that, as varied as charoset is, it’s a part of everyone’s Passover year after year, and that's what unites us, as far apart as we may be."

Even for the non-religious, cooking and eating charoset is as much about the ritual act as it is about the historical symbolism. “There is something about the preparation, the long cooking of the charoset, the patient stirring and waiting until the dried fruits turn a deep brick red and so gungily thick it’s hard to stir any more, that makes one feel connected with past generations in a way that ceremony alone never could,” Lawson writes. “And this in a way is the great Jewish trick: to use food to make sense of it all, to make sense of anything.”

“This is the time to remember the Seders gone by,” Roman tells me. “It’s important to be present, whatever ceremony you’re doing. To talk about freedom, to keep afloat.”

What’s most heartening, perhaps, is that in this epoch-making era of isolation, people are adapting to the coronavirus pandemic not by holing up, but by reaching out.

“Even if we can't be with our families in person, technology can keep connection alive and well, ready to discuss this modern plague, how COVID-19 disproportionally affects different communities, and what tomorrow will look like when this pandemic is over,” Cohen says. “Next year, this will be nothing but another story of perseverance.”

“Because of the participatory nature of a Seder, Zoom may not be so bad,” Tamarkin adds. “The leader of the Seder should mute everybody other than whomever is reading at the moment. That's a function I wish I had at in-person Seders, actually.”

For Falkowitz, Passover cooking may not inspire much joy even in the best of times, but it is a chance to be more mindful and appreciative. “Sometimes you can't get to that place without solitude,” he writes to me. “Which, in a way, is why we celebrate holidays in the first place, right? They're here to give our inner and outer lives a sense of geography. Celebrations aren't that special when everything is going well; their real power is holding us together when the rest of life isn't turning out like you planned.”


Aline’s Charoset

Makes: 3 servings
Total Time: 15 minutes

1 1/4 cups pitted dried dates, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons roasted almonds, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons roasted pistachios, shelled and roughly chopped
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon rosewater
2 tablespoons grape juice

  1. Blend all the ingredients in a food processor for about 3 minutes until smooth and paste-like consistency is formed. Transfer to a serving bowl.

  2. Serve at room temperature with matzo or a piece of lettuce.

    Make Ahead: Charoset can be made up to 5 days in advance. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Recipe courtesy of Jewish Food Society.

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Eric Kim is the Table for One columnist at Food52. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he covers food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

2 Comments

Allison April 11, 2020
For many years I have been making my own style of Charoset. It consists of raisins soaked in "traditional" red wine until very soft, then mashed with crushed walnuts (I use my fingers so there is variation in the fineness and allowing for some larger pieces), cinnamon, ground ginger and freshly ground black pepper.
 
Maggie S. April 10, 2020
Learned so much from this—thank you for gathering these wonderfully varied snapshots of tradition, adaptation, and joy. A v good read.