Today’s my lucky day. I get to be both interviewer and interviewee. I’ve been waiting for the day that I qualify, and today it’s here.
Because finally, we’re doing a topic on which I have some expertise — making Pesach in COVID times. Okay, maybe not expertise, but amateurish dabbling, two whole weeks of it so far, so that counts for something.
How are you managing with all of your children home these past few weeks, and how are you planning on making Pesach with everyone around, and how are you handling the imploding of your Pesach plans?”
“I’m not sure how to answer that, and I have no idea, and I miss my plans.”
It’s a short interview, true, but it conveys oh so much.
I’ve interviewed others as well, in case you’d like more robust answers, although I have a few formulas of my own.
Number one, everything goes. That means if you want to rollerblade off the couches, down the stairs, on the countertops, while having a water fight and eating leftover candy, feel free. As long as it’s not chametz.
Number two, lock up the two-year-old. I don’t know about you, but my two-year-old oozes granola bars and graham crackers. I don’t even know where they are from. I think he stores them in his undershirt or something, because there’s always a crumb trail in his wake.
Number three, if you don’t clean, you don’t eat. It’s amazing what kids will do for a square meal. (For all those horrified readers, have no fear. Everyone around here is eating triple their regular intake. A missed meal here or there is probably just what the doctor called for.)
My husband has the good fortune to be in one of those “essential professions” that are still in action, which means he waltzes off into the sunrise each morning, leaving the rest of us behind to rollerblade off of tables while listening to Rebbi’s teleconference, while sweeping up the new dusting of tea biscuits coming out of the toddler who escaped lockup while I was writing articles about cleaning for Pesach instead of cleaning for Pesach.
But my problems are small, blessedly. Pesach will happen, I’m sure of it. And the kids have risen to the challenge, surprisingly. (And yes, we, too, are saving our porch for the Chol Hamoed trip, although I’m quite sure I caught whiff of a child or three sneaking out there today, despite the sturdy lock I snapped on the back door, so it’ll wind up being one of those recycled Chol Hamoed trips.)
Everyone right now has a story, a feeling of anxiety and a general sense of uncertainty.
“I’m a total basket case because I’m expecting the week of Pesach and I just heard hospitals are not allowing husbands because they are trying to limit exposure,” says Shevy. “And on top of that, my mother isn’t feeling well, which means I should probably not move into her house for Yom Tov like I had planned, which means I’m now making Pesach as well!”
Obviously, for many of us, all The Plans are quickly disintegrating, which is just one aspect of this multi-layered challenge.
People who had expected to travel to family now cannot. People who had booked hotel stays have to cancel. Even people who had planned on making their own Yom Tov are suddenly finding themselves sick, throwing their careful cleaning and cooking schedules off track.
“I have the virus now,” says Mr. Klein. “Some of my family members have it as well, and they’re in worse shape than I am; some can hardly move or speak. My wife assumes she’ll catch it as well, so she’s trying to hurry and cook now so she’s not stuck with a huge workload Erev Yom Tov while she may be incapacitated.”
The stories are endless. Everyone is struggling to make order out of the new impression of chaos.
I call Dr. Jeffrey Lichtman, a psychologist and Lucille Weidman Director of Graduate Jewish Education at Touro College, for advice. Dr. Lichtman is kind enough to share some thoughts, which is grand for me, because I get a free hour of tailored therapy out of this article.
“So I have lots of questions,” I start. “Namely, how do we go about managing our lives when The Plan has just blown up?”
Well, he has lots of answers.
“We all like the familiar, and anything that is unfamiliar is uncomfortable,” he begins.
“What I’m about to share with you are broad guidelines. Some will work for some people. Others won’t. A lot of this is a question of degree,” he adds as a caveat.
Planning a Plan
He starts by saying we need to realize that stress is normal. All of this is new, and none of us has experienced anything like it before. “Anyone who suggests otherwise is not being honest.”
But, at the same time, he says, “It’s a matter of balance.” And perspective. “Everything in life has positives and negatives.”
In this case, he urges us all to, yes, be honest about the challenges, but recognize the new possibilities. He puts it as the following hypothetical:
“The plan was to go to work, and now I’m not. That’s a negative because I can’t bring in parnassah, but hopefully it is something short-term that will pass. On the flipside, I now have more time to prepare for Pesach, which I usually don’t have because of work. And maybe I have less on my head now because I’m not balancing my work/home life.”
The balancing act continues.
“Then again, my kids were supposed to be in school and are not, which is difficult and which means I’m the new Rebbi/Morah, but the flipside of that is wow, now I’m really getting to spend time that is somewhat structured with my kids, doing meaningful things rather than just cramming in homework late in the evening, which they don’t want to do and I don’t want to do.”
Sharing a personal angle, he mentions that he is a proud grandfather of a few school-age children. “It’s exhausting on the one hand, but a privilege on the other,” he says about the general zeidy role, which just got a whole lot more exhausting now that he has become stand-in teacher as well. “…I’m able to teach them! Every year, I don’t know what they’ve learned in school, so it’s harder to gear the Seder to them, but not this year. I’m planning the Seder with them in mind. For me, this turned out not to be a worse plan, but a better plan. A different kind of quality of plan.”
He concludes this idea with the following: “With every balance, I believe there are opportunities. Hashem gives us challenges, to be sure; we may not feel like we can handle them, but we can. We have capacity.” And he reminds us, most importantly, to turn to tefillah.
That’s the psychological mindset we want to adopt.
Now for the practical end of it.
What do you actually do when the plan, or possibly multiple plans, fail?
“Talk about it,” Dr. Lichtman advises. Identifying it, discussing it and quantifying it have a big impact.
He offers the following metaphor: A classful of kids is misbehaving. (Or maybe let’s make that a houseful of kids is misbehaving.) If we want to get them under control, we might say to them, “If you don’t stop this behavior, you’ll lose recess for three weeks” (or, alternatively, “If you don’t stop this behavior, you’ll lose all snacks, rollerblades and water guns for three weeks”). Those kids would get mighty uncomfortable (or so we would hope). But a lot less uncomfortable than if we had said, “If you keep acting this way, you can’t imagine what I’ll do. The consequences will be unbelievable!” (If that were my house, no one would take that threat very seriously. But let’s say they had; then they’d be super uncomfortable.) The point here is that the second threat is much worse for kids, because without any way of quantifying the consequence, they have no way of getting used to the new reality. Who knows what’s up teacher’s sleeve? Six months of no recess? Expulsion? (Or no snacks or roller blades or water guns forever.)
“People can adjust to anything,” he stresses, “when you quantify it.”
Therefore, in order to adjust to all the newness, we need to talk out that newness and put into words what, exactly, we are looking at. Otherwise our minds spin out of control.
Next, make new plans.
“You’re getting ready for Yom Tov,” he says. “What do you need to do? Clean the house, shop, food prep and Seder prep. Ask yourself, what can’t I do? I can still shop — not at the same time, not at the same store, maybe not even for the same things, but okay, life will go on.”
Drawing on a video he recently saw of a Holocaust survivor reminding us all we have matzah to eat, wine to drink, shoes on our feet and a bed to rest in, he encourages viewing the current crisis in perspective. “Okay, the plan will be different this year.”
On with that plan.
“Maybe I typically toivel certain keilim and I won’t be able to do that this year,” he continues. “What Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants is for us to bring ourselves in the best way possible to Pesach. And a silver becher more or less, that’s not what this is about.”
Keep breaking down the pieces of the plan.
He suggests reaching out to friends for help. Split up the shopping: You do the produce, she does the butcher, and the labor is divvied up.
“Yes, it’s true Bubby usually comes and makes the gefilte fish. So we’ll have other gefilte fish, or we won’t have gefilte fish,” he says. “Or she’ll tell us the recipe over the phone, and if she just has the recipe stored in her head, maybe this is an opportunity to chat with her and finally get that recipe written down.”
Every hiccup in the plan opens up new prospects.
One final thing about plans, he says. “Share them with your family! We don’t have telepathy, not yet. This is not the time to keep secrets.” If everyone’s in on the plan, the plan can shape up into a sturdy one.
And as a final, final note, ask everyone for their thoughts on the plan. “Even for children, certainly at age eight or nine and older. They have chachmah. They may even have a better way of doing something we need done.”
Fighting the Loneliness
Another central challenge for this year’s Pesach is the reality that many older adults will have to spend Yom Tov on their own due to the risk of infection. Grandparents who are used to hosting 20 or 30 children and grandchildren may find their table settings whittled down to two.
“Any suggestions on how people can shoulder that feeling of isolation?”
Dr. Lichtman warms to this question quickly.
“Particularly for older adults, I think it’s really important that adult children don’t make decisions for their parents without consulting them.”
While he notes that he is not a medical health professional, he insists that it is the 60-plus community who should decide what their Yom Tov plans will be, not children or grandchildren deciding on their behalf.
“I think it’s disrespectful,” he says plainly.
Pointing out that sometimes children slip into the role of decision-making for parents, he cautions against assuming the role without careful, conscientious steps. “It should be done with the utmost respect, without imposing our will on them,” he says.
As for the core of the question, yes, he agrees, this year is going to be harder, and not just for older adults. There are singles who now cannot go to friends and acquaintances they usually visit. “I think we need to acknowledge that difficulty, not minimize it.”
One way we can combat the inevitable loneliness is by bringing in Yom Tov with a powerful Erev Yom Tov. Reach out to family, make those calls, share good moments so we can carry those experiences into Yom Tov even if we are not together. “Get the kids on the phone to talk to Grandma,” he urges. “Ask her what Pesach was like when she was your age.”
The sharing goes in both directions. When we reach out and connect, ask bonding questions, share memories, those thoughts, feelings and ideas will sustain both sides of the equation throughout the chag.
“This is probably the toughest part,” Dr. Lichtman admits. “Everything else is relatively minor and transient. This, for as much as it’s transient, it’s difficult. Nothing can make up for that. But I can make up for that by picking up the phone and connecting to my brother, who’s not going to be joining me this year.”
We may not be able to change the reality, but we can certainly shape the energy.
For a final word of wisdom, I turn to Chana*, a mother of a large brood, who lives in a small house.
“How are you managing with all of you cramped up all day? And how are you making Pesach?” I ask.
“We’re just doing our regular things,” she offers serenely. “We’re a happy gang, the bedrooms transform into a beis medrash during the day, and the backyard is our playroom.”
One trick: constant cleaning. Not the Pesach cleaning type, just the regular cleaning type. “I try to make sure the mess doesn’t pile up. I’m constantly doing laundry and organizing,” she says. “If there’s too much clutter then we might all go bananas.” The kids pitch in when they “chap a bren,” she adds, although they can’t always be counted on.
It’s a lot about attitude, she concludes. “I tell them, ‘As long as we’re healthy, we’re happy.’ We try to have simchas hachayim and perspective on life.”