This year’s Passover (Pesach), an eight-day Jewish holiday, begins after sundown on Wednesday. The first night’s customary meal, called as a seder, is commonly attended by extended family and friends. The table’s youngest member sings four questions, each of which asks what makes this night different from others. The irony is that, because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s seder will be unlike any other.
To the uninitiated, the storey of Passover may seem incredibly solemn. After all, it describes how the Jewish people were imprisoned in Egypt for 200 years until God intervened and sent ten horrific plagues against them, including frogs, lice, boils, and locusts. By marking their door posts with the blood of a sacrificial lamb, Jews were able to avoid the tenth plague, which killed all firstborn boys in each home. When the Angel of Death saw this mark, he “passed over” certain buildings and spared their residents. The Jews, however, had to undergo another 40 years of wandering in the desert wilderness before they could safely dwell in their homeland of Canaan. All of these dreadful facts can be found in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus.
The seder, in contrast to the austerity and difficulties of the Passover storey, allows for communal celebration. “A Passover Seder is the ultimate antithesis of social distancing,” writes Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post. We are obligated to gather to recite the Passover tale and to share it with our children, even if they are too young to understand.” Because seder means order in Hebrew, practically every aspect of the celebration is governed by rituals.
For example, the meal includes a lot of food, such as matzo ball soup and gefilte fish, two Eastern European Jewish favourites. There’s enough to drink, including four glasses of wine that must be consumed. There is a lot of singing, including songs about numbers (Echad Mi Yodea, or “who knows one”), animals (Chad Gadya, or “one small goat”), and expressing gratitude to God (Dayenu, or “it would have been enough”). A treasure quest for a hidden piece of matzah is also included. And it’s all supposed to be done while reclining, as part of the occasion’s informality and relaxation.
But, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, how will Jews practise such communal customs this year? Large groups of people crammed around a table to share food and drink are unkosher. Most families will be forced to segregate themselves, but they may be able to share their rituals with others via virtual presence. Despite the fact that most (but not all) rabbis allow for a streaming seder, especially if a virtual assistant like Siri or Alexa can initiate the feed, most (but not all) rabbis are allowing for a streaming seder. Click here for Passover Programs
Streaming aside, folklorists are fascinated by the ways in which folk groups—religious, regional, racial, ethnic, or occupational—seek to preserve their long-standing traditions when faced with difficulty and turmoil. Folk comedy, such as jokes and drawings, are perfect examples that are often shared by Jews throughout Passover preparations.
One is a mock open letter to Dr. Anthony Fauci, in which he is asked for assistance on how to handle the seder this year. Before asking how to disinfect a seder plate or whether “wandering in the desert [would] be appropriate at this time,”
“You’re busy rescuing the world on four hours of sleep (Dayenu, am I right? ), while I’m busy watching C-SPAN, eating Lucky Charms by the fistful, and not bothering to change from my daytime athleisure wear to my nocturnal athleisure wear,” the letter writer writes to Fauci.
Another joke, in the guise of a memo “sent by a family considering the season,” emphasises the pandemic’s forced alterations. For example, “you should be able to cry your own salt water tears” instead of the traditional salt water on the seder plate to signify the tears and sweat of servitude. Children under the age of five will be admitted, but only if they are “completely wrapped in plastic.”And instead of the four cups of wine that were allotted, the Almighty has permitted us to drink eight cups.
These Jewish jokes about Passover seem to disclose more about the patterns and traditions of Jewish humour than about the festival itself. Folklorists studying Jewish jokes have highlighted the joke-tellers’ dependence on self-deprecating humour, in which they poke fun of themselves (eating Lucky Charms and needing eight cups of wine) as well as their Jewishness, occasionally resorting to anti-Semitic tropes. Consider Jack Benny (born Benjamin Kubelsky), who was famous for his frugality with money.
Or Sarah Silverman, who makes jokes about who is to blame for Jesus Christ’s killing. Or consider Jerry Seinfeld, whose “best” Jewish joke is based on the stereotype that Jews are constantly moaning, or kvetching. Jews may be able to take some ownership of these prejudices and thereby highlight some of their silliness by telling such jokes.
This last characteristic appears to best describe the Jewish humour style during a pandemic. By joking about such a serious matter, the coronavirus jokes may assist to ease anxiety. Furthermore, the Passover humour may aid in the development of religious unity among members of this particular religious group. Or Sarah Silverman, who makes jokes about who is to blame for Jesus Christ’s killing. Or consider Jerry Seinfeld, whose “best” Jewish joke is based on the stereotype that Jews are constantly moaning, or kvetching. Jews may be able to take some ownership of these prejudices and thereby highlight some of their silliness by telling such jokes.
This last characteristic appears to best describe the Jewish humour style during a pandemic. By joking about such a serious matter, the coronavirus jokes may assist to ease anxiety. Furthermore, the Passover humour may aid in the development of religious unity among members of this particular religious group. But I think it’s uniquely Jewish humour to poke fun at the irony of a plague-themed holiday being cancelled or shortened due to a pandemic. That is the pinnacle of kvetching.