It’s 15 minutes to Zoom Passover and I’m scrambling to get my seder plate together. The irony doesn’t escape me: the reason we eat matzah is because the Jews left Egypt at the very last minute and couldn’t wait for their bread to rise – and I’ve left the seder plate to the very last minute.
I type ‘what goes on…’ into Google and the internet search engine offers me ‘a cheese platter’, ‘the x axis’ and, third on the list, ‘a seder plate’, which means I’m not the first Jew anxiously trying to get their Passover groove on.
Each of the five Passover staples on the seder plate – shank bone, boiled egg, bitter herbs, spring greens and charoset – represents something of the holiday celebrating the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery thousands of years ago.
I grew up in a traditional Jewish family. We didn’t keep kosher and hardly ever went to shul, but we fasted on the Day of Atonement, celebrated the Jewish New Year and marked Passover with a ceremonial feast known as the seder.
Of all the holidays Passover is the one I have the most affinity to; it anchors me to Judaism. Judaism, for me at least, is family, friends, food and that invisible force that keeps the fiddler from slipping off the roof – tradition. All these elements converge on Passover. Within the formal customs and rituals are our own family traditions, like my father’s dad jokes.
‘What is that,’ he asks every year pointing at a bowl of what is clearly bean salad.
‘It’s bean salad,’ someone dutifully responds, to which he replies. ‘I don’t want to know what it’s been … I want to know what it is.’
We groan but it wouldn’t be Passover without it.
A seder wasn’t a seder if Herman Caplan wasn’t there. Herman was my father’s friend. He was 6ft6 to my father’s 5ft5 and the two spent hours in each other’s company, swapping stories, cracking jokes, watching movies, chatting about sport, politics and calling each other Shmecklehead, which is Yiddish for goofy person.
Herman knew everything about everything. His brain was filled with details, trivia and stats. He could tell you who won the best supporting actor in 1953 or which cricketer hit a six off Ian Chappell to win the fifth Test in Port Elizabeth. He was a walking Wikipedia.
Herman was always the first one to arrive for the seder and as soon as he arrived he would ask for a whisky. One day I offered to fetch it for him. I poured the whisky to the top like it was a cool drink.
‘From now on you’re pouring the whisky,’ he told me. I was eight.
Passover is the retelling the story of the exodus. It’s the same procedure every year and the same story is told over and over, but when Judith, my oldest sister, went to university she returned with a new version of the story; one that lifted it out of Egypt and into the politics of apartheid South Africa, teaching us that we cannot be free until everyone is free.
We’d spill red wine on saucers as we recounted the ten plagues but the plagues we cited in the turbulent 1980s were the imprisonment of political prisoners, deaths in custody, detentions without trial, torture, state of emergencies, censorship, bannings, troops in the townships, Bantu education, and poverty.
The role of Pharaoh was played by PW Botha and Nelson Mandela was our modern day Moses warning Die Groot Krokodil to Let My People Go.
My political awakening occurred between mouthfuls of gefilte fish and chopped liver on matzah, endless choruses of Da-da-yenu, and gulps of red wine.
Time marched on.
Politically, as we know, the Nationalist Party got its comeuppance (prison sentences would have been nice, though), and South Africa was freed from the bondage of apartheid. I moved to Cape Town with my own family, and sobbed when my father phoned to tell me Herman – the giant genius, whisky-swigging walking Wikipedia – had died.
I always meant to return to Johannesburg for family seders but never quite found the time. This year, in lockdown, not passing over Passover seemed particularly urgent.
The whole world is broken. We cannot move. We’re enslaved to an invisible enemy that is wreaking havoc on every aspect of our lives. I was feeling frayed around the edges and wanted to connect with something solid and reliable – my family; even if it’s only for a digital seder, which was due to start in five minutes.
I looked at what I had managed to scrape together for my plate: a hardboiled egg, bitter herbs and parsley, well three out of five ain’t bad. I didn’t have a lamb shank bone but if you don’t look too closely a roasted carrot could be its doppelganger. It was just the charoset I had to make. Charoset is a sweet-and-sour sticky paste that’s meant to resemble bricks and mortar to symbolise the backbreaking work the Jews did during their enslavement. It’s made of apples, walnuts, honey, red wine and cinnamon. We have all the ingredients except walnuts. We have no nuts at all, but I remember spying a slab of wholenut chocolate in my wife’s emergency snack stash. I can pick out the nuts. Walnut, wholenut … why not? If there’s one thing the novel coronavirus has taught us it’s that you’ve got to make do. I crushed the apples, sprinkled the cinnamon, added the repurposed nuts and made the charoset in record time.
I assembled my gang – my wife Jean and our children: 16-year-old Khwezi, 11-year-old Rachel and 5-year-old Maya. Maya arrives with no pants. I send her off to put some on before clicking on the Zoom link.
With that click my parents, three siblings and an assortment of their in-laws dotted around various Johannesburg suburbs crackle into our dining room. And just like the Passover of my youth, everyone is talking at once.
My father’s laptop is pointed too high and we can only see the top of his and my mother’s heads. But he’s on mute so we can’t tell him. I phone him and give instructions to point his laptop down – it feels like I’m conducting remote precision keyhole surgery, but we eventually work it out.
Judith takes charge. Why is this night different from all other nights, she asks and begins to tell the story of the exodus, this time lifting it out of Egypt, out of apartheid South Africa and into the time of Covid-19. She only gets a few words in when Ruth, my other sister, blurts out, ‘Why is Maya’s pants on her head?’
The connection’s not good and our screen freezes. Then Ruth gets kicked off the call and can’t log back on. We decide to reconvene on Google Hangouts where we can at least turn on captions for my hard-of-hearing mother.
We restart. It’s my brother’s turn to read.
‘Moses was born…’ he begins.
Khwezi almost chokes on his gefilte fish (well, a fish finger that self-identifies as gefilte fish).
What’s the matter, I ask my son. He points to the caption on the monitor.
‘Moses was born’ is transcribed as ‘Moses watched porn.’
We continue but the garbled captions get more attention than Moses’ heroic exploits.
‘Pass the matzah’ becomes ‘pasta master’, which is when it occurs to me that matzah is the perfect lockdown food: it fills you up and makes you constipated; handy when you run out of toilet paper.
We recite the ten plagues caused by the Covid-19 fallout: the deaths and the people dying alone, rising infections, mass retrenchments, troops in the townships (the more things change, hey), people going hungry, stock market crashes, social distancing, quarantine, bored children at home, and all the social, cultural and sporting events cancelled.
The coronavirus hangs heavy over our seder but I’m comforted by the fact that all of us are together. Well, most of us. I have a large glass of whisky in honour of Schmecklehead.
It’s time to say goodbye and return to our own socially-distanced meals.
‘Next year in Johannesburg,’ I vow.
Just before my father logs off I ask him what he and my mother are having for supper.
‘Charoset, hardboiled eggs, matzah and bean salad,’ he says.
I can’t resist.
‘I don’t want to know what it’s been…’ A lump that’s suddenly lodged in my throat prevents me from finishing the joke.
We may be down but, unlike matzah, we will eventually rise … we just need a little time.
I wrote this in 2020 after the world was locked down. It was published in Lockdown: The Corona Chronicles.