Family life

Christmas will be OK—take it from this Jewish mom

When lockdown started, a Passover seder on Zoom seemed ridiculous. But two high holidays and a few tech snafus later, this mom can attest to the resilience of holidays.

It was creeping towards midnight, and I was in the kitchen, scrubbing cupboards and tossing bags of pasta, flour and crackers into a plastic bin. Muttering phrases like “they’re learning resilience” and “it could always be worse.” It was April 7, in the fourth week of lockdown in Toronto. We were still waking up every morning stunned that our kids were seemingly never leaving, and suddenly it was time to clean out cupboards and buy matzah.

Passover is one of the major holidays in the Jewish year, almost universally celebrated by observant and non-observant alike. It’s my favourite holiday, and as a family of former Soviet-Jewish refugees, I find its message of freedom particularly meaningful.

The disappointments in our home by then were many—my parents’ cancelled holiday visit, my aborted annual March Break “Camp Mom” with the kids, job worries for my partner, and the suddenly frenetic pace of my formerly manageable day job in healthcare. I’d been sick, too, which meant testing and self-isolating until my negative result came in. And, oh yeah, the school closure. My kids, five and 10, were angry, scared and bored. They raged at me almost daily. The normality of a festive celebration seemed impossible—a betrayal of the suffering around us.

Enter Jewish social media, rallying with a thing dubbed “Zoom Seder.” OK, sure, maybe? When I floated the idea, my kids were unimpressed. How could I consider such an obvious downgrade from our usual elbow-to-elbow seating with family and friends? They had a point—I was tempted to skip the entire holiday. The four of us on our own seemed lonesome and miserable. As if we were insufficient. I tried to remind myself that I’d grown up celebrating holidays this way, with extended family an ocean and an Iron Curtain away.

It didn’t help that holidays are usually a tech-free affair for us. Though this practice is based in religious proscriptions that we don’t follow, I’ve embraced it as a means of shutting out the noise of social media and news cycles. Under the circumstances, a churlish reason to reject a Zoom gathering. So, too, my fear that a virtual Seder would just highlight what we were missing. Surely grandparents onscreen were better than glum faces and angry silences? My parents would otherwise be alone across the country. Plus, I was counting on them to keep the kids’ spirits up when I couldn’t. Somewhere in my anxiety and dread, I recognized that abandoning our traditions would be Bad Parenting. The Wrong Lesson. So I cheerily nodded along with my kids’ complaints and started assigning haroset (a fruit-and-nut mix representing the mortar used by the slaves in Egypt)and matzah-ball making.

Passover turned out to be a holiday that’s well suited to virtual gatherings. There’s a set ritual—the Haggadah is essentially a guidebook telling you what to do at every step.

It was imperfect. The connection was occasionally choppy. Video is particularly unfriendly to Russian accents and our habit of talking (read: shouting) at once.

But so much went well, too. We turned on the feed about a half-hour before we started. Our home filled with voices. Family who normally don’t fly out here popped up onscreen; gathering from BC, Alberta and Ontario, we were all equally present and not present. The kids gave their grandparents a tour of the table—matzah, Seder plate, salt water, my holiday tchotchkes—and showed off for their cousin. They forgot to be angry. Even the cliché “Is this thing on?” moments took on a familial warmth. If I closed my eyes, it sounded like the holidays.

We ate our requisite bitter herbs, drank our four glasses of wine (or juice), and leaned into the comforting cardboard flavour of matzah. Everyone took turns reading sections of the Haggadah, like we do every year. The familiar words unspooled as we made jokes about the 11th plague and obnoxiously intoned at our kids about the two handwashings that are part of the Seder.

When we finally said goodnight, some three hours later, I felt invigorated. I’d been desperately trying to convince my kids that things weren’t that bad, and for a few hours, they believed me. (And, much to their chagrin, lockdown had no impact on our ability to maintain the ban on leavened foods for the week.)

For the first time since mid-March, I, too, believed that normal still existed. Like the cliché about the sun always rising, holidays arrive despite personal and world tragedies. My grandparents lived through the worst decades in Soviet-Russian history. My definition of disaster has always included some combination of food shortages, religious restrictions, secret police and wartime evacuations. Separation was a part of life, and in that context, a Zoom Seder is a gift. It’s hard to feel sorry for myself faced with that family legacy. I hope my kids understand that, too—because I’m banking on future appreciation here. (Right around the day they thank me for math classes and swim lessons, right?)

By September’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays (Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement, respectively), virtual dinner with my family was a given. Despite some minor tech snafus, we once again managed to make them meaningful evenings. These holidays typically pack synagogues, but again, the Jewish world adjusted. In warmer areas, services moved outdoors, and less observant congregations opted to go online. Some friends even posted images of backyard services. Though we didn’t pull off full holiday observance—no to services, yes to the Yom Kippur daylong fast—it didn’t matter as much as I thought it would. I knew that we’d done what we could while keeping our family safe. And, hey, in another 12 months, we get a do-over.

Hanukkah, which starts on December 10 this year, is considered a minor holiday, and this feels like a sigh of relief. I’m lamenting our likely cancelled annual open house. (Note to self: Less cooking and cleaning are good things.) But otherwise, it’ll be the same eight nights of candles, latkes and gifts (thank you, online shopping).

My spouse isn’t Jewish, and we don’t yet know what we’ll do for Christmas. But we’re standing by, comfortable that we can send gifts to our niece and nephew and organize a virtual gift-opening event. We’re fortunate that we can do drive-by visits for that side of the family and wave from the sidewalk, a convenient excuse for a Thermos of hot chocolate. Unlike in April, our kids already understand that nothing is the same.

We’re also considering pulling our kids out of school early so we can quarantine for an in-person visit with the grandparents. Not solely because of Christmas, though. It would be a longer break and their grandparents need to see them. In many ways, we’re the lucky ones. In this forced divorce-like situation, we got the kids. For grandparents, every day is unfairly lonely.

Three major pandemic holidays later, the festivities don’t feel as different as I would have expected. Even when it’s an inadequate facsimile, holidays are holidays. On my list of Reasons I Can’t Sleep, flawed celebrations won’t be the cause of long-term damage (yes, I’m still muttering to myself about resilience). The real fears are never seeing family in person, whether our loved ones will remain healthy, and the unknown mental health impact of lockdowns.

I don’t know what my kids will remember of this time when they grow up. They will remember some parts, and they’ll read things that will weave into their memories. There’ll be moments they forget completely. I hope when they look back they have these touch points of stability, of things that are bigger than all of us, to keep them grounded. That they’ll know how to get up and keep going—just like generations of their family have done before.