She and her husband, Allan, are both retired teachers, and their days are normally filled with mah-jongg games and lunches with friends and lots of time at their Howard County synagogue. As the novel coronavirus descended, they found themselves with empty calendars. At ages 65 and 78, they feared leaving the house even for groceries.
The couple sat alone at their home in Columbia, Md., and they wondered: Would the pandemic take away Passover, too? Or could they still find meaning in the holiday, in a world that had narrowed drastically?
Worldwide, a night different from all other nights
Passover is the most-observed Jewish holiday of the year. When Pew conducted a landmark study of Jewish Americans in 2013, it found that just 23 percent of Jews usually light Sabbath candles, and about half fast on Yom Kippur — but a whopping 70 percent had attended a Seder the previous year.
The holiday is traditionally observed in the home, not in a synagogue. Families invite relatives and friends to eat symbolic foods, sing songs and say blessings, and recount the biblical story of the Jews leaving slavery in Egypt.
This year, the dawning awareness that almost no one would be hosting guests has caused an outpouring of grief and creativity around the world.
Jews of all ages and backgrounds mourned the prospect of being alone at the Seder table, or missing the once-a-year chance to see faraway relatives. Rabbis and writers rushed to come up with high-tech ideas for a virtual Seder.
But for the Geislers, like so many others, Passover isn’t something you celebrate on a screen. Passover means pushing aside all the furniture in the house so dozens of people fit around three tables pushed together in a U shape. Passover means that she cooks for a week and he cleans up all night when it’s over. Passover means seeing their four children and nine grandchildren, and Allan Geisler’s beloved brother-in-law and his kids and grandkids, and anyone else they can gather from near and far.
Passover means lots of wine, and lots of tequila, too — it’s not required, but it’s kosher for Passover, and it ties them to their Mexican roots much more than a bottle of Manischewitz wine.
Tortillas made from matzoh meal
The Geislers have a lot in common: Both were born in Mexico, part of the country’s small but vibrant Jewish community, though he moved to the United States at age 12 and she stayed in Mexico City. Each had one son and one daughter, and each was widowed at a young age.
Twenty years ago, he traveled to Mexico for a cousin’s 50th birthday party. She was there. Both said they weren’t looking for a new relationship after their spouses’ deaths. But there were sparks. “Bashert,” Doris says, using the Yiddish word for predestined. “A match made in heaven.”
They found themselves in a binational romance — and then, newly married, she was moving into his home in Maryland and realizing that she wouldn’t be able to attend the Mexican Seders she had enjoyed every year of her life, hosted first by her grandmother and then by her mother.
So they invited everyone they could think of to a Seder in Columbia. A new tradition was born.
Every year, she compiles her own Haggadah for the Geisler family to read the prayers from. Every year, he leads the service and asks the grandkids, ages 12 to 20, to answer trivia questions throughout the night. Every year, each father present at the Seder hides his own piece of matzoh somewhere in the house, which leads to a mad scramble to find not just one afikomen but many at the end of the meal. Every year, Allan Geisler rewards the finders with lottery scratch-off tickets.
Family members fly in from Miami and Mexico and New Orleans, and drive from Baltimore and Pennsylvania. If Doris Geisler hears about a friend who doesn’t have a place to go for Passover, she extends an invitation: “There’s always room at the table for more.”
She chops up the symbolic hard-boiled egg from the Seder plate and mixes it with avocado before she smears it on matzoh, the unleavened bread that is central to the holiday and reminiscent of what Jews supposedly carried with them when they fled from Pharaoh. “The kids call it ‘Jewish guac,’ ” she says of the mixture. “That was at my grandmother’s table and my mother’s table and my table. I guess Jews got to Mexico and they had to use what was there.”
Allan’s son Andrew Geisler, 51, appreciates how the Seder brings to life the family’s Mexican heritage for his three children, who are now in high school and college. The Seder, he says, “reinforces everything that I wanted them to understand in their whole life: how important your family is. How important your Judaism is. It couldn’t be a better lesson.”
Andrew was on a Zoom call with his dad and some other relatives, celebrating an aunt’s birthday remotely, when Doris Geisler first mentioned that she supposed there wouldn’t be a Seder this year.
And suddenly, ideas sparked — and the Geislers figured out how they could save Passover.
Making new memories
Andrew suggested that they have a Seder together via Zoom, just as many families and Jewish communities around the world are planning to do. And Doris chimed in: “I’ll make the food.”
Yes. Even though she couldn’t safely host her family in her house, Doris realized, she could still feed them. “My mother said, ‘You want them to come? You put food on the table.’ And I always feel like that’s who I am.”
She would make kishke in mushroom sauce, and corned beef with mustard. She would fill plates with gefilte fish and Tupperwares with charoset, a fruit-nuts-and-wine mixture that recalls the mortar the slaves in Egypt used to make bricks. If she could get any eggs delivered from Instacart, despite the nationwide egg shortage, she would make her famous “Jewish guac.”
And she would bundle it all up and drop it in her front yard.
Her children and grandchildren could pick it up there, and wave to her through the window.
Andrew immediately agreed. If Doris would make Passover dinner, he would drive the two hours from his home in Blue Bell, Pa., to her door.
His sons will come with him, he says, and they’ll make memories: “ ‘Remember during that pandemic? We all went to Doris’s and she made food for everyone? Remember that Seder? That was great.’ That’s what this is going to be,” he says. “We’ll listen to music. We’ll have some good conversations. Hopefully the rest stops will be open. We’ll bring rubber gloves and hand sanitizer.”
Allan’s daughter in Gaithersburg and his late wife’s brother in Baltimore will pile into their cars, too. They’ll wave from afar. They won’t touch. And when Andrew and his boys get home, all of them — joined by Doris’s children and grandchildren in Mexico City and Miami, and Allan’s brother-in-law’s kids and grandkids — will log on to Zoom.
They’ll pray together. Allan will ask the trivia questions and have the fathers hide the matzoh in their own houses. Doris might insist, like she always does, on singing every verse of the long Hebrew songs that come at the end of the Seder, “Chad Gadya” and “Echad Mi Yodea.”
Whether their Jewish ancestors were leaving Egypt, or fleeing Romania for safer shores in Mexico, they didn’t give up on their practices. They clung tighter to them.
This is why we nurture ritual: for a time of plague.
“This year, I think we need it more than other years,” Doris said. “We need a Seder.”