For St. Louis Jews, Passover seders featured more empty chairs, not empty rituals

Rabbi Mordecai “Yari” Yaroslawitz (right) holds frequent, large gatherings at his home in University City but was unable to do so this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. File photo: Bill Motchan

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

One might think that Passover seders, the meals during which we eat matzah, the bread of affliction, and other special foods, might have been dry occasions this year because of people’s inability to gather in large numbers due to social distancing guidelines.

And while people interviewed by the Jewish Light expressed disappointment about some aspects of this year’s seders, they also said the social limitations created some unique opportunities.  

Here is what some St. Louis Jews had to say:

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(Their responses have been edited for clarity and space.)

Rabbi Mordecai Yaroslawitz, known as “Rabbi Yari,” typically holds 10 meals over the course of Passover at his home in University City, with between 30 and 100 people in attendance at each one. For the seders this year, Yaroslawitz, a member of Agudas Israel of St. Louis, sat with only his wife, Zipporah, and four of their children. 

What stood out to him?

“It was especially beautiful spending the seder with our family, reliving the exodus from Egypt and the myriad of miracles, in an intimate family way,” he said.

Rabbi Brad Horwitz, director of Jewish engagement and adult programs at the St. Louis Jewish Community Center, led a community seder on the second night of Passover for the seventh consecutive year. Except this year, it took place on Zoom, the online meeting platform with about 50 families participating.

The seder was an opportunity for people to think about the current situation, in terms of the story of Passover and making it relevant to what’s going on. We said some special prayers, for example a prayer for healing for those who are sick, and we did a special prayer to honor the doctors and the first-responders and all the people who are helping to save lives. It was an opportunity for people not just to celebrate Passover but to have a prayerful moment of hope.”

Linda Markowitz, office manager of the St. Louis Kollel and administrative director of the Senior Kollel Division, typically hosts about 12 people for seders. They have a tradition of reciting the Ma Nishtana, the Four Questions, in various languages. Markowitz asks them in French. Another guest does them in Yiddish. Another does them in German. And of course, Hebrew and English.

This year it was just Markowitz and her husband and daughter.

The tradition “seemed a little hollow,” Markowitz said. 

Her daughter was like, “Ok, mom. You did it in French, let’s move on,’” Markowitz said and laughed.

“It was a lot more serious, not as light-hearted as it had been in previous years, but we were able to cover the Haggadah in a little more in depth. The word ‘intently’ keeps coming to mind for me; we did it with a little more intent,” she said. “But it was certainly different. All the words seemed to leap off the page of the Haggadah this year, talking about the plagues, it was something we could relate to so much more than we have in previous years.”

Jan Baron, a member of Congregation B’nai Amoona and assistant to the director at the J’s Early Childhood Family Center, did three seders this year — on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights. 

Despite the fact that it was just Baron and her daughter Lori — though they did some Zoom calls with family elsewhere —  “I cooked like I was having everybody here. I made matzah ball soup and chicken and fruit compote and all the trimmings, and we had such a good time,” Baron said.

“Our seders were very fulfilling in many respects and very sad because we weren’t able to be in person with family. But everyone is in the same boat, so we know that, and I think we made the best of a situation that certainly is different. I’m sure we will all look back on this and say, ‘life before coronavirus’ and ‘life after.’ And life after is going to be interesting; I don’t think life after is ever going to be quite the same.”

Gabriela Szteinberg, project coordinator for general chemistry supplemental programs at Washington University, did a Zoom seder with about 20 friends — and then a meal over Zoom with just her mom, who lives in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. 

“I made this kosher for Passover cantaloupe cake. I had cantaloupe that I had to use and being a chemist, I’m like, ‘Oooh, let’s experiment,’ ” Szteinberg said. Normally she would go to friends for Passover, but this year, she had to fend for herself.

That meant she made gefilte fish for the first time in her oven, along with brisket, matzah ball soup, veggies and quinoa. Her friend Abbi Marks emailed her a PDF of a Haggadah to use.

Most of rest of her seder supplies came courtesy of Chabad of Greater St. Louis. 

“That really was a lifesaver,” said Szteinberg. “They gave me a seder plate and charoset and even a toy frog, which I thought was really cute and grape juice and a Kiddush cup, so that completed what I needed at home.”

Ellyn Hloben also received a seder kit from Chabad, “which made doing a Seder easy,” she said. 

“They included grape juice instead of the wine listed, so I had to substitute Riesling, but Elijah did not mind,” she said. “It was the first time I ever did a seder on my own, due to the pandemic. Sadly, all of my elders before me have passed on. For so many reasons, this was the most meaningful seder of my life. JewBelong, [a website that aims to reach unaffiliated Jews], provided a beautiful Haggadah, from which I read every word. Brisket, gravy, and matzah farfel stuffing, plus drinking the required four glasses of wine, made this a special time, indeed.”

Erin Schreiber, manager of the Hillel at Maryville University, said she had been “truly dreading” her Zoom seder.   

“I grew up with a family seder of at least 30 people, and that’s my idea of what feels right, so I was not excited about hosting a seder for four. Instead, it was really meaningful. We were the only ones with Haggadot, so we took turns reading around our table, but engaged our family on Zoom with questions. Before my daughter sang the four questions, we all went around and talked about when we were the wise child, including everyone on Zoom. I think the seder actually meant more this year. Being together virtually was the sense of connection we needed.”

Amanda Stein, a member of Congregation Temple Israel, said her synagogue “made a great video by assigning different parts” of the seder “to different members and stringing them together.”

“Personally, for our two seders, both moms really helped. For the first night my mother-in-law, Rosalie Stein, safely dropped off food, Haggadot, seder plate items, and afikomen prizes. We Zoomed together and shared a meal. It was nice to ‘eat’ with others,” Stein said. “For the second night, my mom made us a seder kit complete with plague decorations for the table, seder plate items, Haggadot, and again afikomen prizes. She even hid an afikomen in our Haggadot for us to find. Again, we did a Zoom seder and ‘ate’ together.” 

“It was definitely different, but it felt nice to not let the holiday pass without celebrating.”