Every spring, Jewish people around the world gather to commemorate the events of the night the Jews left slavery in Egypt — the evening of the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nisan — through a series of stories, songs, and rituals known as the Passover Seder. The details of the Passover Seder, as it is known today, first appeared in the Mishna, a collection of rabbinic law and commentary developed between 50 CE and 200 CE.
Jews have been commemorating the Exodus with symbolic foods for well over 1,000 years, even before the Seder came into being. However, the current global COVID-19 pandemic and a statewide shelter-in-place order in Georgia have created an extraordinary scenario for markets, catering businesses, and Atlantans preparing for Passover, which begins Wednesday night, April 8
The seder hasn’t changed much over the centuries. Most of the liturgy and rituals recorded in the Mishna are still followed today. Participants spend the meal drinking four cups of wine, discussing the concepts of liberation and freedom, engaging children through questions and songs, and enjoying an elaborate, festive meal, often with familiar dishes such as matzo ball soup and brisket. Families and friends typically gather in large numbers, stuffed around dining room tables or in makeshift spaces filled with folding chairs to accommodate everyone in order to fulfill a central command of the Seder: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
For the observant, preparation for Passover begins as early as a month before the holiday. The Torah prohibits eating — or even owning — food or drinks made with or from leavened bread throughout the holiday, which lasts for seven to eight days. According to Jewish law, leavened bread is any food made from wheat, barley, oats, rye, or spelt flours that has been mixed with water and allowed to ferment. This means alcohol and spirits made from those five grains are out, as is any food that contains even a trace amount of those grains. The sole exception is matzo, the thin, cracker-like flatbread that is made using only flour and water, and baked for 18 minutes to prevent any possible fermentation or yeast development.
Passover is referred to as the “Holiday of Matzah” in the Hebrew Bible.
Due to these food restrictions, Passover seder menus require weeks of strategic planning. In many families, the cooking workload is shared among attendees. To meet the extra shopping demands, stores with Passover items typically do brisk business and are packed with crowds in the days and weeks leading up to the holiday.
“Passover is not just about the holiday itself, but all the preparation for weeks before. There is the cleaning, preparing the kitchen so it can be used for Passover, shopping, and, of course, tons of cooking,” says Dunwoody resident Elaine Brasch. “You have to go to many different stores to find what you need because no one store has it all, especially those more esoteric items that are hard to find.”
This year, Brasch, who is Orthodox and among those who doesn’t engage with technology on Jewish holidays, is spending the holiday with just her husband and two adult sons, and not her network of extended family and friends. She usually hosts around 25 people at each Seder meal, with nearly 100 people coming through the home throughout Passover week.
Brasch’s sister, Gail Medwed (the author’s mother,) is cooking her family’s favorite dishes from scratch, including chicken soup, corned beef, and her homemade charoset (one of the Seder’s symbolic dishes, often made from apples, walnuts, and sweet wine). Her sons will pick the dishes up to bring back to their homes before enjoying a modern Seder together as a family via Zoom.
To piece together her Passover shopping list this year, Medwed visited Toco Hills’ Kosher Gourmet in person, but opted for curbside pickup from Kroger and Shipt delivery from Costco. Knowing her family will be eating the same food helps soften the disappointment of not being able to be physically together for Passover.
Even with pared-down Passover celebrations planned for just immediate family, shopping has been difficult.
Tzippy Teller, co-owner of fully kosher specialty store the Spicy Peach in Toco Hills, tells Eater Atlanta her store pivoted to a personal-shopper model a few weeks ago to minimize the number of people coming into the store as COVID-19 cases grew in Atlanta. With a full menu posted online and fun virtual shopping videos on social media, customers have been emailing order requests to the store. Teller and the staff fill labeled boxes and meet customers at picnic tables outside.
While the new system is safer, it has added hours of work. “This whole process has created a lot of extra work,” says Teller, “just simply by the fact that people order and then remember one item, and email back with, ‘Oh, can I just add this?’ We also have to call people with questions, as their order might not be clear, or they want specific brands, and we need to know if they would like to substitute.”
Given the difficulty of shopping and finding ingredients, some Atlantans are opting for takeout or to cater their Seder meals. Andy Traub of A&S Culinary Concepts in Johns Creek already offers fully prepared takeout meals for his customers. This includes a prepared Passover family meal for six people, which can be reheated at home. “We’re just trying to make everything as easy as possible for everyone — for us and the customers,” he says. However, the meals are not kosher.
The General Muir hosts Passover dinners each year at the Emory Point restaurant. While also not kosher, these meals have a dedicated following, and partner Jennifer Johnson says it wasn’t a question of whether they would offer the meals this year, but how they would offer them amid the pandemic.
“Before we knew the extent of the impact this situation would have on our businesses and the community, we had planned for our Seder dinners at the restaurant and our Passover takeout catering, as in past years,” Johnson says.
Despite the uncertainty, the restaurant kept Passover information up on the website, even as it became apparent dining room celebrations would be canceled due to the suspension of dine-in service at Atlanta restaurants. Catering quickly sold out, and meals that would have been served as part of the Passover dinners held at the General Muir are now available to order for pickup at the restaurant.
For many Atlanta Jews, this will be the first time they’ve had to lead their own Seder rituals, which can be daunting. For those who need a little extra help or may not be looking to have an extravagant Seder on their own, progressive synagogues and institutions across metro Atlanta are organizing virtual Seder gatherings via Zoom and Facebook Live.
Alexandria Shuval-Weiner, rabbi of Roswell’s Temple Beth Tikvah, hosts a traditional Seder at the synagogue for her community. This year, the Seder will be a Zoom experience for the congregation. Shuval-Weiner says she began preparing people for the changes to this year’s holiday weeks ago: “I have been sharing tutorials for conducting a virtual Seder, links to community Seders people can log on to join, resources for downloading Haggadot [the guide book for the Seder], special prayers and readings to add to the Seder experience (some we have created and some other clergy have written), links for ordering kosher for Passover wine and other food stocks, links to restaurants who are preparing takeout Seder meals, songs, stories, and other recommendations.”
She worries most for people who are alone for Passover this year and may not have access to a computer to join virtual Seders. A congregant who has come to her home for the past five years and does not have family in Atlanta can’t join because of COVID-19 and the shelter-in-place order. Shuval-Weiner is trying to get him set up with a smartphone so he can take part in their virtual table.
“Social distancing has, on the one hand, forced people home, but in so doing, many have rediscovered family connections in a new way,” Shuval-Weiner says. “I think this will naturally fold into how Seders will be experienced [in the future].”
However, not everyone who can will join a virtual Seder. Traditional Jews include the use of electronics and technology on the list of prohibitions for certain days of the holiday and the Seder. For those community members, local synagogues, rabbis, and congregations are reaching out in advance to ensure everyone has the supplies and instruction they need to observe the holiday on their own.
What is typically a time to be surrounded by friends, family, and community is much more intimate and, in some cases, even isolating this year. Some area synagogues held online classes leading up to the holiday to prepare people not only to lead a Seder, but to reach out to others in the community who may be alone or in need during Passover.
“Passover always has been one of my favorite holidays. A home holiday, not a synagogue holiday, [with] universal messages of the world’s unending quest for freedom from oppression,” Johnson says. “I think there is an opportunity for Passover to feel oddly special this year, with a greater appreciation for our freedom. We hope that by having the General Muir cook for you, we’re relieving some of the anxiety we’re all feeling right now.”
Robbie Medwed is an Atlanta-based educator and food and culture writer who teaches Jewish Bible, law, and history at the Epstein School in Sandy Springs. Medwed has a master’s degree in Jewish Education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, where he lived for two years. His food writing has appeared in the Atlanta Jewish Times, the Jewish Food Experience, Grok Nation, and Eater Atlanta. He also runs the cocktail website KosherCocktail.com.
Check the Georgia Department of Public Health website for guidance and twice-daily updates on the latest number of reported COVID-19 cases.