View of the San Fernando Valley from the Santa Monica Mountains. (Photo/Wikimedia-Oakshade CC BY-SA 3.0)
View of the San Fernando Valley from the Santa Monica Mountains. (Photo/Wikimedia-Oakshade CC BY-SA 3.0)

Last Passover we said, ‘Next year in Calabasas!’ This year we’re doing it.

Each year as the last winter storm threatens the West Coast and ultimately disappoints forecasters, my mother sends the email to the list. Littered with all-caps warnings about traffic, she pushes our family — chosen and by blood — to RSVP for the Passover seder.

Last year’s email never went out.

We Zoomed our seder. I could not visit my family, clean the house or help make the dishes on the unchanging menu. Like everyone else, we were stuck at home.

With a shorter than normal service to fit it into the 45-minute limit and food that paled in comparison to our usual Passover meal, we missed the normalcy of upending my parents house to fit dozens of people around the seder table. But one thing we say every year, we said that night, with renewed religious vigor: Next year in Calabasas!

My mom’s email goes out to nearly 50 people who at some point came regularly to the Cohen-Cutler seder. Some have moved or drifted away, some have died — but they are all still part of our table. We close our seder by telling the people around those rented tables jammed into every inch of my parents’ living room that we expect them back next year. And they expect to be there. It’s just the order of things. Since we arrived in San Francisco in 2012, my nuclear family has always traveled south to take part.

This year, once again, there will be no email.  We will not lay out my grandmother’s china or my grandfather’s kiddush cup. Even as a vast majority of the family has been vaccinated, due to either age or profession, there will be no big Cohen-Cutler seder.

But we came south all the same — this time, for good.

The pandemic took so many things from us and shattered so many of our assumptions. Living in the Los Angeles area, and the San Fernando Valley in particular, was never going to be for me. But the journey of the last year — lost jobs, stolen first days and the non-sanctified passage of time — revealed that living in the City forever was one of those false assumptions.

San Francisco saw the birth of our sons, the establishment of our real adult lives, and the development of some of the most important friendships we ever made. The City exists in my mind as it did on the best days of our lives there, but that is not reality. The schools, streets and unbearable cost of living rubbed the shine off of the city on seven hills for me. What made all of that bearable and excusable was that we lived in this hallowed space alive with innovative art, food and industry. But not anymore.

Proximity to family, a backyard and strip malls won out over continuous garage break-ins, over-priced apartments and a city that seemingly rises from the sea through the fog.

As the clouds of the last winter storm depart from the sky above my San Fernando Valley house, I reflect on our move to Los Angeles. Leaving what we knew for something we only visited seemed impossible and dangerous during a pandemic. Nearly drowning in the last year of loss, we trusted each other to point the car south and drive in the hopes that our fears would part as we hit the road.

As spring starts to push through the final vestiges of this mild Southern California winter, I wonder if our small gathering of immediate family this Passover will feel like entering the Promised Land or just one more meal in the wilderness.

Perhaps both.

Donald C. Cutler
Donald C. Cutler

Donald C. Cutler is a Jew who lived in San Francisco from 2012 to 2021.