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Pesach 2020: ‘It’s a period of affliction, a kind of slavery to disease’

Kate Mani
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Published: 2 April 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

Three Australian writers - Ramona Koval, Bram Presser and Diane Armstrong – tell Kate Mani about the special relevance of Seder in the time of pandemic

RAMONA KOVAL
Family will remain at the heart of this Seder for author, journalist and broadcaster Ramona Koval. The former ABC radio host and now Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism plans to bring her family together using the Zoom video conferencing application.

“I think we just have to be creative. I had planned to go over to my daughter’s place and cook like I normally do with her, and everyone comes to her place, but that’s not going to happen so we are going to ‘zoom in’,” she says.

“Everyone will be at their house, everyone will have their own little Seder plate and we’ll have a Seder, just like we normally do., These foods are symbols, the passing around is a symbol and we’ll create a digital symbol.”

Koval says she has not experienced any difficulty sourcing traditional Pesach food, and assures me she has seen “piles of matzah” while shopping. But if this changes, she will be resourceful. “A matzah is a very easy thing to make, it’s terribly easy.”
Viruses don’t respect borders and we are really in a position now to put together the best kind of cooperation that human beings can muster.

Koval believes the COVID-19 crisis emphasises the need for human beings to cooperate, communicate and work together to defeat the virus. She is optimistic that human innovation and collaboration can prevail.

“Viruses don’t respect borders and we are really in a position now to put together the best kind of cooperation that human beings can muster, because, you know, we are really clever.

“Look at the space program, look at DNA analysis, look at the digital technologies that we are going to be using to communicate with each other this Pesach,” she says.

“I think it’s a chance to rise above viciousness and racism, and all of the things that we remember about the Pesach story, and think about how we can cooperate together.”

BRAM PRESSER
Author and musician Bram Presser feels deeply saddened that the coronavirus is keeping him away from family and friends at Pesach this year. Presser, whose debut novel The Book of Dirt won the New South Wales Premier’s Prize for Fiction in 2018, says he has always had quite small family Seders. But this year the tradition will be limited to three people as Presser is in the high-risk category and will have to be in full lockdown.

“It’s the first year my daughter is old enough to be part of the Seder and she won’t get that beautiful family experience I grew up with. Pesach was always a highlight for me,” he says.

Presser says that social distancing guidelines have required his family to act as a self-sufficient unit without relying on their usual support network or being able to support their parents and grandparents.

“I feel most sad about grandma who is locked down at Emmy Monash [aged care facility] without her family. I’m sure they’ll do their best to make it meaningful for her but it can’t be the same,” he says. “And she’s 95, so every Yomtov we still get with her is a time to treasure and, frankly, I feel robbed of that.”
Maybe we can look to the Exodus story as one of inspiration and hope: we look forward to a time when we can once again leave our homes.

“At the end of the day, we’ll still be doing the Seder, just my partner, our daughter and me, and we’ll try to make it enjoyable and meaningful, but I imagine there will be a fair few tears shed along the way.”

Presser has also turned his mind to the fresh meaning and analogy with Pesach emerging out of the crisis.

“We’re certainly going through a period of affliction and hardship, dare I say a kind of slavery to this disease, so there will be an odd experiential synergy with Pesach that we’ve never had before,” he says.

“Maybe we can look to the Exodus story as one of inspiration and hope: we look forward to a time when we can once again leave our homes, spend time with the people we love, and enjoy the basic freedoms we’ve taken always for granted. And maybe a new perspective on how we live our lives.”

DIANE ARMSTRONG
For journalist and author Diane Armstrong, Pesach has always been a chance to reflect on people suffering from oppression around the world, and this year that concept of suffering feels even more tangible.

Armstrong, who arrived in Australia from Poland with her parents in 1948, has touched on these themes in her many books, including her family memoir Mosaic: a chronicle of five generations, which was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, and the National Biography Award.

“I have always regarded Passover as a celebration of liberation from oppression and imprisonment, and every year, while celebrating it, I have focused on people whose freedom has been restricted,” she says.

“This year, we are all, in a sense, suffering from lack of freedom, not through the action of a tyrant or the terror of physical attack, but from an invisible though no less lethal enemy.”
We don’t know how long this siege will last, and we have no control over it. The only weapon we have in confronting it, is belief in our humanity, connection with others.

In this time of great uncertainty, Armstrong draws strength from the Passover story. She sees a connection between the need for the community to come together in this time of crisis to respond to COVID-19, and the hope and faith of the Jewish people during the Exodus.

“We don’t know how long this siege will last, and we have no control over it,” she says.

“The only weapon we have in confronting it, is belief in our humanity, connection with others, and hope that we will be liberated from this scourge, just as our forefathers in Egypt were liberated from their bondage.”

When it comes to holding the Seder this year, Armstrong says that even though the event will be more intimate than usual, the messages of Pesach will be ever as strong.

“As we break up the matzos, and dip the bitter herbs in salt water, it will be an opportunity to reflect on the themes implicit in the celebration of Passover:  the strength of the human spirit, the triumph of goodness over tyranny, and the hope of deliverance."

Photo: From left, Ramona Koval, Bram Presser, Diane Armstrong

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