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Identity

How to Make Socially Distanced Holidays Actually Feel Special

Jews have now had all of our major holidays, and have learned a lot about balancing safety and celebration during a pandemic.
October 20, 2020, 11:00am
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"Happy" "Holidays" 2020 is a series about feeling connected and vaguely festive during the coronavirus pandemic.

Welcome to late October, a time beloved by all rabbis because the cluster of important Jewish holidays with major observance requirements is finally over, and they can catch a breath. Jews have now had all our major holidays: Passover (commemorating the liberation of slavery in Egypt), Rosh Hashanah, (the Jewish new year), Yom Kippur (our Day of Atonement), and Sukkot (festival of harvest and also fleeing persecution, because why not).

As Jews worldwide have wrestled with the mandate to balance safety and celebration, we have learned… a lot, through the process, both in my family constellation and also globally. Figuring out how to make holidays feel celebratory and spiritually meaningful while also satisfying Great-Uncle Marvin’s urgent desire to see all the grandkids and Nana Stella’s Very Big Feelings about whether it’s even Passover at all if she doesn’t make four potato kugels. We have Amazon Primed many tablets to people who used actual slates when they were in school. We’ve explained, and then written instructions for (and then re-written the instructions for) using Zoom on those tablets, and we have stood looking forlornly at our 22-quart soup pots trying to figure out how, or even whether, to make chicken soup with matzah balls for… four people.

It has been a lot: so many feelings, so many workarounds, and such a sense of loss in a year that has already been heavily marked by loss. The mandate to be as separate as possible feels intensely counterintuitive right now; when we’re feeling sad and tired, traditions (even the ones we complain about!), rituals, comfort food, and matching sweaters are exactly what we want. Holidays mark the passage of time in important ways while giving us something to look forward to, and it can be tough to skip making the gourd centerpiece with all the little cousins, or even having the annual fight about the dishes (in which Poppa makes disparaging comments about “women’s libbers” while his 14-year-old granddaughter delivers a scathing read of her father, uncles, and men in general). It’s the little things.

And yet, the public health advice is clear: we have to figure out how to stay physically distanced this year.

As Thanksgiving/Day of Mourning and Christmas approach, you might be trying to figure out how to proceed or what makes sense or whether to even bother. Very fair! I thought it might be useful to share what I’ve learned (and what I’ve gleaned in conversation with fellow Jews) about how to get as much of the good stuff as possible from holidays during a pandemic.

Do something special.

It’s so tempting to just not bother—to take the day off, order a pizza, and call it good. Why celebrate in such an absolute crap heap of a year? That’s not a terrible idea, and if it’s what you really want, then go for it. But: There’s also a very strong possibility that if you do the actions of celebration, the feelings will follow. Jewish tradition teaches that even if you’re not in the mood, even if you’re alone, even if you’re afraid, you should do the traditional things anyway as best you can, and the feeling will come to you in the act. This is often true! Give it a try.

Judaism has the concept of hiddur mitzvah, or making a ritual beautiful—the idea being that cooking delicious food and using beautiful ritual objects for observing or celebrating holidays makes them all the more holy. In the grim landscape of COVID, we need that moment of beauty more than ever. So doing something special for yourself (and your small bubble of whomever you live with) isn’t just a way to bring more yay-we’re-happy cheer—it’s also a way to bring more meaning to your holidays. So from a Jew who has now joined services online, received honey cake by mail, and had several ceremonial holiday meals on Zoom… take the time, shine everything up, and let even a thread of celebration in. You deserve it.

Don’t underestimate how great a Zoom holiday can be.

I was VERY skeptical about a Zoom Passover seder. I grumbled about it and made many displeased noises as we re-organized our space to figure out how to include a computer screen on our table, convinced that it wouldn’t feel meaningful.

I was wrong. Seeing everyone’s faces, even pixelated, was so nice. We read through the Passover seder together and asked questions and talked and ate and said the blessings. Not only did I indeed feel connected, being virtual meant we could invite people to participate who would otherwise have been geographically impossible, and that was actually lovely. Stack up a laptop or tablet on about 14 inches of books at the end of your table, ask everyone else to do the same, and be together for a little while. Even elders in care have been able to do this; many places have made someone available on holidays to assist with Zoom issues, so don’t rule your Nana out (even if you may end up seeing a lot of her left nostril).

You can also participate in religious services remotely these days, which gives an opportunity to either connect with your home congregation or, if you like, do a little shopping and attend a service you ordinarily couldn’t access—a religious leader you admire, a magical choir, or even a different branch of your religion. If you feel uncomfortable with some of the rhetoric at the church or other religious gathering your parents insist upon every year, use this as an opportunity to choose a service more in line with your own religious (or political) beliefs.

Plan intergenerational video cooking classes.

If there are traditional holiday foods that your family loves to eat, make this the year you learn to make them yourself. My grandma, may her memory be for a blessing, made the best stuffed cabbage I have ever eaten (or will ever eat, let’s be honest). Many times I asked for her recipe, and each time she wrote it down (or sometimes dictated it while I wrote it) and never once did it turn out even half as good as hers. By the time I figured out that I should have stood behind her and watched everything she actually did and measured everything before it went in, it was too late—she was no longer up for the all-afternoon cookery extravaganza that proper stuffed cabbage requires. How much do I wish I had a video of her doing it? SO MUCH.

All this to say: ask your Nonno to make his famous meatballs or Auntie Vi to make her sweet potato pie on camera, so everyone can cook along from home and benefit in future years from their expertise. And consider making a recording of the event to share with folks afterward so you’ll all always have it. (A family library of cooking classes? So excellent.)

If your family (or other folks you like to gather with) are local, do a drop-off potluck.

Perhaps Nonno only knows how to make his meatballs for a crowd of 40, and you’re just five people this year. Consider sharing the wealth. Make your standard giant batch of your favorite it’s-not-a-holiday-without-it dish, and invite family and friends who live nearby to do the same with their respective specialties. On the day before (or the morning of), divide your vast amount of that one thing into appropriate portions, and deliver to each of the other households in your group. You’ll all be able to eat the same things at the same time—over video chat if you want, and I strongly think you do—even if you can’t be together in person.

Sharing food remains a cornerstone of many holidays, and anything you can do in that direction takes a bit of the sting out. And since you won’t have to deal with saving some of everything for Cousin Always Late this year, you can make an extra plate or two and take it to someone you know could use some extra food cooked with love.

Add a sense of togetherness (and structure) to video gatherings with readings or questions prepared in advance.

Passover has a whole workbook to read before the meal, and a Rosh Hashanah seder includes a series of questions about what we want to welcome or finish in the coming year. The collective consideration of our circumstances gives an opportunity for sharing joys and sorrows, for reflection, and for connection beyond “So what’s new?” Your version doesn't have to be religious (though it can be), but think about adding some collective reading (everyone reads one paragraph) and some go-around questions to your table. Some ideas:

  • Add a land acknowledgement or reading of the true history of Thanksgiving/Day of Mourning to your feast.
  • Invite everyone to respond to questions—not just “what are you thankful for?” (though that’s a Thanksgiving classic), but add others that are appropriate for your observance or celebration. You could try “What do you hope to be thankful for next year?” or “How can we support Native/Indigenous people in their struggle for land rights?” around Thanksgiving/Day of Mourning, and perhaps for Christmas or New Year’s questions like “What will you work for this year?” “What do you want to end this year?” “What do you want more of this year?” Even little kids can answer!
  • Ask people to bring a poem, quote, or even a song lyric that was meaningful to them over the last year and read it aloud. For a bonus point, they can say why it was meaningful to them.
  • Read Christmas-themed children’s books! Try Santa’s Husband, Grandma’s Gift, Rachel’s Christmas Boat, Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem, or pull out a childhood favorite. Pleasing even if no small children are present, honestly.
  • Here’s a list of holiday poems (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and even Hanukkah) to read from around the table. Even if your family or friends aren’t necessarily big poetry fans, poems add a note of gravitas to special occasions that may resonate, especially this year.
  • Draw names in advance and have everyone give a two-minute toast to another guest.
  • Ask your older relatives to tell you stories about firsts: first airplane ride, first telephone they had at home, first date, first job. How much did things cost? What do they remember about what they wore or ate or heard or saw?
  • *

Or, if your family usually celebrates a religious Christmas (or you’d like to try it), The North Carolina Council of Churches has published this Advent workbook God With Us: A Social Justice Advent Guide for Families. It includes scriptural readings, poems, meditations, discussion topics and activities (many of which can be safely accomplished or modified for social-distancing) for the entire period of Advent (Nov. 29–Dec. 24 this year).

Dress up and feel cute.

Like many people, I, too, am now a proud member of Sweatpants Nation, and my children (who by the end of the summer were basically feral) definitely balked at their button-downs and yontif dresses when I brought them out. But putting on good clothes makes the occasion feel special, and goodness knows we all need opportunities for that right now. Take the time for hair, makeup, a beard trim or a fresh shave, actual pants, and so on. Go wild—maybe even wear shoes! You’ll be glad you did, both for the nice feelings and for the inevitable screen-shot of everyone on Zoom your aunt Carol is going to post on Facebook.

Honor your elders by staying apart.

Listen, we all wish we could be all together with some people we love right now—whether that’s your family of origin or your chosen family. And those of us who don’t feel sure our elder members will see another holiday are wishing for it extra hard. But the mandate of balancing safety and celebration must tilt toward safety, in order to preserve the possibility of future celebration. As recent lessons have taught us (repeatedly), we can’t actually keep our elders or their friends safe from COVID-19 with our love or good intentions. Worse, we can actually harm them—and those who come in contact with them later—by gathering. The desire to trust that everyone has been careful and just hope for the best is so understandable! But public health advice and the available evidence are appallingly clear: we absolutely must not, not this year.

No matter how hard it is for you to miss those meatballs or that sweet potato pie or those tamales, those hugs and even those backhanded compliments about your new hairstyle (which looks great, by the way), know that Zoom funerals are terrible, and playing any part in someone dying alone in isolation is even worse. Please don’t do it.

Do something else that helps you feel connected to other people.

You don’t have to drive anywhere or cook for and clean up after two dozen people this year. Use that time! Do a puzzle or play a game with your housemates, write paper letters or draw pictures to send to friends and family, collaborate on a fun photo shoot or an all-family TikTok dance challenge or even just take a walk/ride/roll to look at plants and birds and see if you can figure out what they’re all called. When you get home, put your feet up and call one or two of your close pals for a long catchup chat. The silver lining to missing out on the casual “you look great!”s and “hey, how have you been?”s from distant relatives and church acquaintances this year is that you can take the time back to focus on the people that are really important to you.

Follow S. Bear Bergman on Twitter.