Seeing as so many of the articles in the news are about how can people approach or celebrate the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in our current COVID climate, I am thrown back to Passover time.
While Christians have confronted this situation in context of celebrating Easter, Thanksgiving is such an all encompassing American holiday that, it seems, like many Americans are coping with the uncertainty of how they will, or whether they will, celebrate holidays in this epoch of COVID we are living through.
We’ve always joked about the ratio of Jewish holidays to Christian holidays — or those of other faiths. Not even counting Shabbat, once every seven days, the Jewish calendar is defined by constant holidays on a monthly, and sometimes even a weekly, basis!
We used to kid how at what point does your non-Jewish professor or boss start questioning that you are inventing holidays just to play hooky from graduate school or take a random day off from work. Little did they know, as they probably pictured our celebratory days off while they slaved away in the office that we were in synagogue, or fasting, beating our chests over transgressions.
So as I see article after article about the anxiety surrounding Thanksgiving celebrations, I feel like a seasoned COVID holiday celebrator with some of our hard earned wisdom to share.
Since COVID has caught us in this time of uncertainty and isolation, we’ve celebrated all three of the pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot. Plus, the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In New York, where I live, Passover especially was celebrated under the dark cloud of threatening death overhanging above the city, shrieking sirens puncturing the heavy sad air.
The following idea will only work on a local level, not if a family is spread apart across the country or the world; but for Thanksgiving a friend of mine had the creative idea to do a COVID style potluck where we each prepare a dish, then divide it into containers, drop off whatever we cooked to all our fellow guests. If each guest does the same in turn, we each end up guests at a shared Thanksgiving meal, down to the actual food itself.
Then, weather permitting, we can safely gather outdoors all eating the same meal. Or we can share the same meal we all contributed to on Zoom. This way we are all sharing that sense of cohesion that breaking bread together can bring. I plan on bringing the cranberry sauce, and some onion jam with cornbread.
It’s such a wonderful idea. I hope it will work out.
Yet, whether families or friends can be together in a semi-normal way that re-creates their normative experience, is beside the point. What will make this year’s Thanksgiving special is not cancelling the holiday but carrying on the tradition in whatever modified form it presents. There is something so grounding about re-living our rituals, whatever they may be. Be it the familiar food and menu, or other characteristics of the gathering that are meaningful to us.
Making peace with how different everything will be this year, yet still grounding ourselves in our rituals, whatever form they might take right now, while difficult, can also feel comforting.
Celebrating a solo Passover seder was emotionally challenging for me. Yet, had I skipped it altogether, that lacuna, while understandable, would have been worse for me than remaining true to myself even in difficult times. While there is no one to bear witness to my recent Passover, to me it remains unforgettable, somehow spiritually woven into the collective Passover tapestry of our people, of those who have carried on our tradition.
This past Rosh Hashanah in Denver, I will never forget standing outside of the house, the dining room window a barrier between my parents and me, as my father recited his melodious holiday Kiddush, my mother at his side, and me on the outside. We were there, the three of us, in our way, together. My mother handed me a plated meal as I departed for my quarantine after my arrival from New York. These are poignant COVID memories; how we continued to celebrate the holidays, albeit in new, different, bizarre but of chief importance: safe ways.
When it comes down to it, that is really all that matters. There is power in the knowledge that every choice and every compromise — sometimes even sacrifice — that each of us makes in ensuring the holiday is celebrated safely becomes a very real part of beating back COVID and sustaining health and life for people we may not even know.
More than anything, this Thanksgiving we are all united and bound together in a way we never have been before. The greatest blessing of each Thanksgiving is that of actually being seated around that table again, another year. This year we shall hopefully feel like no other.
We’ve come a long way since Passover; we see hope on the horizon now. Our gratitude is collective: a vaccine is on the way. I’m grateful.
Happy Thanksgiving, 2020!
Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News