By Miriam Heller Stern
I keep thinking about those stapled-together black and white printed pages, the white spaces and lines waiting to be filled with the scribbles of an eager 6 year-old. Each page bears the familiar symbols of the Passover seder, a template for children to make their own Haggadah, a booklet to follow the rituals and stories of the Passover tradition. It’s a few days before Passover and the pages are still blank. In previous years it would have been sent home today, filled out, pristinely preserved in a Ziploc bag so as not to come into contact with any crumbs in her backpack. This year, the packet might be buried somewhere in front of the family computer under a stack of yet-to-be-paid bills, one of my notebooks that I can never find, and other random print-outs of coloring pages of spring. I have a confession: the packet went missing about a week ago. Confession number two: I decided not to look for it.
For years, my three children have engaged in a time-honored tradition of making their own haggadot at school. Every year at a multi-generational seder, the children pull out these haggadot and proudly show off what they made. For the little ones, laminated pages filled with photos of their friends holding wine cups, washing each other’s hands, and waving parsley in the air; as they got older, interpretations of the seder they copied from whatever materials the teacher gave them, which they read aloud at the table (usually with some coaxing, goading, and bribing).
But this year we aren’t filling in the blanks and coloring in the pictures and rehearsing the songs like it’s life as usual. Today every one of the five members of my household had a zoom call at 11 a.m. I didn’t have the bandwidth – literally or metaphorically – to log my 6 year-old daughter onto her class. My daughter begged not to go on the zoom, or color in the missing Haggadah. She wanted to do math puzzles on the iPad, build legos, and play with the dinosaur dolls she inherited from her older brothers (“You can still be my friend even though you’re a herbivore,” I overheard her narrate one dino to the other). She may not be following the curriculum, but she is learning.
I am so grateful for the heroic efforts of my kids’ teachers to try to make this month leading to Passover feel normal by sending home the materials they lovingly prepared. Their intentions are warm and noble. But we cannot prepare for Passover the same way we did in Passover B.C. (Before COVID-19). This Passover is not like other Passovers. My children will mourn not having their Savta present, who is alone across the country; they will mourn not being at their grandparents’ seder table around the corner. We feel the void of our great-grandparents. We are all feeling grief for what is missing and what has been lost this Spring and this holiday. I pray that we will not lose friends to the pandemic. We are already experiencing grief and mourning, and the losses are becoming all the more real and close.
So the make-your-own Haggadah is still blank, an artifact of Passovers-past. It was hard to concentrate, and we couldn’t keep up, and because the guilt and shame for not home schooling perfectly has been plaguing parents.
The reality is, we need to leave that kids’ Haggadah blank because we are writing our Passover story together, now. The experience of these times is changing me as a parent. I am witnessing my children deepening their resilience and their capacity for empathy. And we are enslaved to our human emotions, our triggers, our lack of oxygen, our lack of control, our lack of words at moments when we just can’t anymore. At the Passover seder, we will no doubt draw parallels to our experience – as if we were there, as we are obligated in the hagaddah liturgy to do. How will we imagine our own Exodus from this present moment? How will we as a family muster the faith and resolve to hold hands and step into the parting waters, praying they don’t crash down upon us? What bits of liberation and redemption can we already taste, even now, when times are tough? And finally, how will we emerge on the other side, and how will we traverse the wilderness together when we emerge into an inevitable, prolonged period of uncertainty?
We begin telling that story, our story, this week. It’s a new story; and yet, we’ve been telling it for generations. It is the secret to our connectedness, our sensibilities, our optimism, our empathy for those who suffer, our determined spirit. And everyone around the table gets to tell it, in their own words, holding in their hands the symbols of a spring that is elusive; symbols of bitterness, of sweetness, of fragility.
Perhaps the blank packet from last year’s curriculum may be unearthed when someone finds the afikomen, the prized piece of matzah that is hidden by a parent and gives the youngest children a fun diversion and reason to get involved in the proceedings. My daughter will scour the house and then produce that cloth envelope filled with broken matzah as if it’s a treasure. We will bless our own brokenness and then say the blessings to express our gratitude for our food, so as not to take for granted our most basic sustenance. We will sing a silly song about a goat, and the circle of life that reminds us of our vulnerability. And we will make memories that will be handed down through generations.
Miriam Heller Stern, PhD, is Associate Professor and National Director of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a mother of three.