IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Passover in a pandemic: Reflecting on family, food and traditions

Even as we missed seeing each other in person, those boxes of bland, tasteless matzo made me feel like it was all going to be OK.
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Growing up on Long Island, Passover was an important holiday filled with family, tradition and the many different foods that are part of the Seder. Don't get me wrong — while I have fond memories of those days, many of the foods were downright terrible. First, take matzo — a bland, tasteless piece of cardboard and such an unworthy substitute for bread. OK, I get that it's symbolic and that my ancestors had to get out of Egypt in a hurry with no time to let their bread rise, but try telling that to a third grader who opens up her lunch box to find a broken in half piece of matzo glued together with cream cheese to make perhaps the saddest sandwich ever to grace the cafeteria at Gardiners Avenue Elementary.

Next, there was the matzo ball soup — de rigueur for the holiday but like most Jewish food, so heavy. Sure, it tasted good going down but word to the wise — matzo is not that easy on the digestive system. I quickly learned that that the answer to the question, "One ball or two?" needed to be "one."

Back in the '80s when I was a kid, the big matzo companies — Streit's and Manischewitz — put out desserts and cake mixes that when set on our Seder table looked delicious, but with the absence of chametz (leavening agents forbidden on the holiday) were dry and just wrong. It never stopped me from taking a huge piece of chocolate cake with frosting, biting into it and realizing immediately it was a cake imposter. Munching on a macaroon, I'd wonder why all my friends got to have the good stuff on their holiday like Cadbury Creme Eggs and Peeps.

But while not all the foods of the Passover table were culinary delights, all of them felt like home. So last spring when we learned we would not be able to gather in person with our families for the Seder, I took special care to replicate some of the recipes and traditions with my husband and our two children. I not only made the matzo ball soup from scratch, I made sure to purchase some of the classics, like a big jar of gefilte fish. That strange delicacy, made of minced fish formed into plump ovals and swimming in a jar of gelatinous broth suddenly made me feel like everything was going to be OK. If I couldn't have my mom and my sister sitting at the table with me, at least I could have chopped liver.

Last year, my twins and I put together the Seder plate and it dawned on me (and plenty of other people I'm sure) that there was a direct correlation between the story of the Israelites overcoming slavery and wandering in the dessert to our current COVID situation. The maror, or bitter herbs, represents the suffering of our ancestors, and many of us have also struggled during this past year. It made me think that my people have gotten through stuff way worse than coronavirus. As my son booted up Zoom and daughter placed the egg on the Seder plate, which represents the circle of life and rebirth, I knew that even though I had to see my relatives on a computer screen, we'd make it through.

This weekend, my family will get together in person for the two Seders. The weather is getting warmer. There is hope in the air. My mother and sister are both fully vaccinated. When we sit down to see those familiar items on the Seder plate and the stack of matzo on the plate next to it, I'll be reminded just how much those childhood food traditions really did matter.

I'm ready for the lovely little gefiltes in their science experiment jars, the matzo that no amount of Irish butter can make taste good, the steaming piles of brisket that I would never eat at any other time of the year. And of course now that we're older and we know better, there will be amazing flourless chocolate cake for dessert (though no disrespect to the mix!).

As the sun sets on Saturday and our holiday begins, we'll pour big glasses of Manischewitz wine, which tastes like alcoholic grape juice, as we sit around the table together and tell the story of our ancestors. And at the end of the Seder, we'll say the traditional words: L'Shana Haba'ah B'Yerushalayim — next year, in Jerusalem. But coronavirus has changed us, so this year, I'll offer up a more modest prayer: next year, at my mother's dining room table.