Hallie Dolcourt’s seder setup (COURTESY DOLCOURT)
Hallie Dolcourt’s seder setup (COURTESY DOLCOURT)

How Bay Area Jews coped with seder-in-place

The Seder was different for everybody this year. Gatherings were smaller, some were live-streamed, others had empty seats where family members should be sitting. But digital technology also brought some people together for the first time in years. Here are four stories; maybe they match your own.

Irreverent seder, mauve soup

“Shank bone doorpost blood/angel of death pass over/thank you little lamb”

Hallie Dolcourt’s haiku about the shank bone was just one of the untraditional elements in her family’s Passover seder this year — untraditional for most, perhaps, but perfectly in line with the style of the Dolcourt family, she said.

“We’re rather irreverent, and we have a lot of fun with it,” she said. “Really a lot of kidding.”

For the Sunnyvale resident, there were a lot of things that were the same at this year’s seder, in spite of coronavirus: the vegetarian dishes, the multiple generations, the wise-cracking over the haggadah. But unlike other years, Dolcourt wasn’t seeing anyone face-to-face, and once the seder was over, she was eating by herself. That’s because the 75-year-old has lived alone since her husband, Victor, passed away in February.

“That felt a little bit lonely,” she said.

For the most part, Dolcourt said she had a fabulous seder, joined by 13 members of her extended family, including children and grandchildren from around the state. Older generations were there symbolically, with her mother’s candlesticks, her husband’s shofar and Kiddush cup and her daughter’s cup for Elijah.

The family kept it light for the seder. Instead of the usual potluck, they shared pictures of the food they made, which is always experimental in the Dolcourt family. One matzah ball soup was beef-based with “Asian flavors,” while another turned mauve after the broth was cooked with purple potatoes. Hallie’s own dinner was what she called a “seder salad.”

Jessica Dolcourt’s soup (COURTESY DOLCOURT)
Jessica Dolcourt’s soup (COURTESY DOLCOURT)

“I took mixed greens and threw whatever was on top of the seder plate on top of the greens!” she said.

One family tradition was already perfect for a virtual Pesach: They forgo hiding the afikomen, and instead play a fun little game. The winner gets to decide which charity the family will donate to each year. This year, of course, coronavirus and the economic effects of the shutdown were on everyone’s mind.

“We’re going to give to one of the food banks because so many people are going hungry,” she said.

Living alone, Dolcourt has been dealing with the shelter-in-place order with optimism. Her kids are checking in regularly, and she’s keeping active.

“I don’t feel isolated,” she said. “And I think that I’m lucky.”

Or, as she put it in another haiku: “2020 plague/seder on the internet/next year in good health.”

Maya Mirsky

Passover deliveries for 500

Last year, Chabad of Pacific Heights Rabbi Moshe Langer hosted more than 300 people on the first night of Passover, at a seder held at a coworking space in SoMa. This year, it was just him, his wife, Taliah, and their four children.

Langer, who grew up in a Chabad house in the Richmond District before becoming a rabbi himself, is used to celebrating Jewish holidays with scores, even hundreds of others — often people he has never met. But this year, due to shelter-in place orders, it felt like there was a “void.”

“In the haggadah we say, ‘Everybody who is hungry should come and eat,’” Langer said by phone Monday morning. “The foundation of the seder is to invite a guest. You have got to invite a guest to your seder.”

So, instead of inviting guests to his home this year, Langer brought the seder to theirs. Through Chabad’s seder-in-a-box program, inspired by initiatives that bring holiday essentials to soldiers and Jewish prisoners, Langer and Chabad of San Francisco delivered matzah, wine, seder plate materials and full meals to about 500 people across the Bay Area. Theirs and similar efforts were covered by KPIX, the local CBS affiliate.

Contents of a "Seder in a Box" distributed by Chabad. (LEWIS BADEN)
Contents of a “Seder in a Box” distributed by Chabad. (LEWIS BADEN)

Most meaningful, Langer said, was delivering the items to isolated seniors, many of them Russian emigres who were afraid to leave their homes because of the coronavirus. Those visits served two vital purposes:

“We gave them basic food in a time of crisis, and an opportunity to connect to their heritage,” he said.

At the Langer household, there certainly was a silver lining to the intimate family gathering. Langer said he, Taliah and the children read the haggadah together and had a discussion about the Four Questions.

“I think the kids really enjoyed it,” he said. “They got a lot more attention.”

— Gabe Stutman

A seder for two, times two

After several years in New York, Alex Shwarzstein moved to Palo Alto in 2017 to live closer to her family in Los Angeles. One benefit of the move was being able to go home for Passover, something she has done for the last few years.

But like everyone else in the Bay Area, her Passover plans were disrupted this year by the coronavirus pandemic. Shwarzstein, 35, stayed home with her roommate, Shelli Carol, for two nights of intimate seders with just the two of them.

Due to Carol’s religious practice, a virtual seder wasn’t an option. But Shwarzstein tuned into her family’s first-night seder, which started at 5:30 p.m. About two hours later, at candlelighting time, she logged off and started the full seder with her roommate.

Roommates Shelli Carol (left) and Alex Shwarzstein spent both seders together in their apartment in Palo Alto. (COURTESY SCHWARZSTEIN)
Roommates Shelli Carol (left) and Alex Shwarzstein spent both seders together in their apartment in Palo Alto. (COURTESY SCHWARZSTEIN)

“One difference was that Shelli feels like she needs to say everything in Hebrew, which was a first for me,” Shwarzstein said. “It was kind of refreshing, a nice way to change it up.”

She and Carol also discovered that they like the singing the same parts of the seder, which added to the camaraderie.

“It didn’t feel like I was expecting,” Shwarzstein said. “I was expecting it to be kind of depressing. It was kind of nice, actually. It helped that I was with my family for a little while before the seder. But the haggadah is the haggadah — it varies from one edition to another, the translation varies, but it’s all the same, to an extent. The seder is the seder, so that helps a lot.”

David A.M. Wilensky

First family seder in 25 years

Gary Yabrove has lived in the Bay Area ever since leaving Colorado 45 years ago to attend college at UC Santa Cruz. His parents, brother and sister remained behind. He has taken his wife and now-grown son back to Colorado only once to celebrate Passover with his birth family. “That was when my parents were still alive,” he said. “Since moving to Oakland, we’d always go to my next-door neighbors for the seder.”

Last month, as isolation kicked in with shelter in place, he, his siblings and their three widely scattered first cousins starting calling each other. The phone calls quickly moved online, and the six families decided to hold a Zoom seder on April 8.

Screenshot of the Yabrove family Zoom seder (COURTESY GARY YABROVE)
Screenshot of the Yabrove family Zoom seder (COURTESY GARY YABROVE)

“This group has never gotten together to celebrate Passover,” said Yabrove, an Oakland resident for more than 25 years and recently retired from a teaching career at UC Berkeley. Participants hailed from D.C., Colorado, L.A., Sacramento and even Hong Kong. “It was 7 a.m. there, they were just getting up for work.”

While the actual seder was “kind of chaotic,” he found himself meeting — albeit virtually — grandnieces and grandnephews he’d never met before. That would not have happened without the video conferencing app, or without the pandemic. “It was less about the seder and more about reinforcing the family connections we’ve developed these past few weeks,” he said.

Sue Fishkoff