Miriam, Rabbi, Cincinnati
By Jonathan Zwickel
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Rabbi Miriam leads Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, Ohio. This is her story.
Has the pandemic affected the way you’re celebrating Passover?
The existential crisis that all of humanity is going through right now — that psychic, spiritual and physical crisis — is true and real. For it not to affect a holiday that’s about liberation would be a miss on the part of Jewish people. How am I supposed to experience myself as redeemed and liberated when I feel powerless or scared or depressed, or when I’m dealing with health issues? All things that normally affect us are heightened in this moment.
If the point of Seder is to connect us to the story of Passover, then the pandemic is giving us this beautiful opportunity to do that. I recorded a 30-minute Seder. We called it a “click and play Seder.” We had a second Seder specifically for people who are alone. Our parks aren’t closed yet, so we went to a park and created a great afikoman hunt — you had to download clues and photo yourself doing it, and people could find eight matzot we hid around this huge park.
So things are different.
The biggest difference this Passover is psychological. I’ve talked to three-fourths of my congregation in the last three weeks. That’s a lot. People need connection, people are scared. Their theology is being challenged. Religion as a whole is being challenged. What does any of this religion mean to me? If I’m a regular at services, what do I do with myself now? And why was I really going in the first place? People are either finding religion more meaningful or finding it not meaningful at all, but either way people are craving that meaning, that connection.
Passover is traditionally about literally opening the door and allowing anyone who is hungry come and eat. And opening the door to Elijah, the prophet who will usher in the Messiah. But we’re not opening our doors to anyone right now.
When I grew up my parents would bring people from shelters to be with us. There was always one more person at the table than we planned. I’ve inherited that same thing. I started cooking for Seder for my family on Monday knowing I was making too much but not sure for whom. I posted something on Facebook and tons of people wrote in and wanted some. We ended up feeding about 60 people. You know that saying, ”One mitzvah leads to another”? Through that thread I got my mom in Seattle to bring some matzah roca to a doctor in Everett. It was like this crazy chain, one person asking how the other person was doing. To link it back to Elijah, that was a way of welcoming and opening our doors and acknowledging the interconnectedness of all things.
One of my best friends was saying how strange it is that this is happening during Lent, a time of foregoing and minimizing things. This has forced him to do that. Passover is the opposite. It’s a celebration of being together and connected. But the theme of remembering we’ve been through horrible times and we made it through, that feels really relevant right now.
What’s happening with your congregation?
My congregation is young so maybe I have 12 to 15 funerals in a year. And in the last two weeks we had six people die. The funerals are so depressing because we’re only allowed to have eight people together, and they can’t stand next to each other. They’re wearing masks and you’re wearing a mask and there’s no shovel so you’re using your bare hands to put dirt on the grave.
Everything we do as a Jewish culture to show up, mourn, and bereave has been minimized. It’s hard to mourn right now and be active with your grief. I didn’t realize how dependent on tradition I was when it came to grief.
How are you planning for the future?
Even when they release restrictions we’ll be scared. And we’ll deal with whatever grief we avoided. It’ll come for us. We’ll either grow from the moment or we go back to the way things were, and we’ll be changed but not acknowledge the change. It’s like treading water. First you think you’re getting stronger, then you’re like shit, where’s the shore? Religious people have it worse. Passover is all about questioning and really celebrating the act of not knowing, celebrating these questions you’re supposed to ask.
Walter Brueggemann is a Christian theologian who talks about this moment where the slaves are at the parted sea and they look out and all they see is vast lands of barrenness, and they look back and see what it meant to be in Pharaoh’s world, where it was build and build and do more and more. To build even if building meant death. To create an empire — that was success. And they look at this wilderness ahead of them and say, “That’s not success. That’s not freedom.” Some of them left and went back to slavery because at least they knew what it meant to live like that. But the rest of them, even in the wilderness they found manna and they found the Sabbath, they found rest and abundance. If we take that theology and put it in this moment, the stresses we put on ourselves before are different now, and we have to work to find meaning and groundedness (sic). But we also have the opportunity to be free from empire. There’s the possibility of abundance if we can find it.
What are you listening to?