Charisse Zeifert is Head of Media and Communications at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.
“This is true freedom: Our ability to shape reality. We have the power to initiate, create and change reality rather than only react and survive it. How can we all educate our children to true freedom? Teach them not to look at reality as defining their acts but to look at their acts as defining reality” -- Yaacov Cohen, Lockdown Pesach 2020
Before lockdown, life is busy. Work, schlepping, the usual…. But life is good. My mother helps. She and her scotty dog are always here. She fetches, helps with homework, picks up all the pieces I drop. But lockdown is coming. It’s over Pesach. Our life as we know it, is about to change. And Pesach looms.
We’re in the shops. I see a friend with a trolley overfilled with goodies. She’s stockpiling. My daughter looks at me. “Shouldn’t we be stockpiling too” she asks? “Absolutely not”, I say. “There’s no need. And anyway, our home is small. Where would be put any extra stuff?
My boss sends me home. “Do we get a laptop to work off?” She looks at me incredulously. “Where we will get the money for that from? Take your desktop” she responds. “But where will I put it?” I whine. Her suggestion is to move in a trestle table and it’s my turn to look incredulous. Where would I get a trestle table and where would I put it? My home is small.
Nonetheless I find a spot in the lounge, secure my computer to the plug in the wall, get the wifi working. I have settled in and am set to go. My son sets up his work station in the lounge not too far from me. In the upcoming weeks we will get to know each other’s lives quite well.
My daughter, for her part, sets up her work area in the kitchen. In the upcoming weeks she will become an excellent cook and baker. My husband is the last to be sent home from work. He is optimistic he will go back to the office soon. In the meantime, he is happy to set up his office in the bedroom. We are good to go. But I am constantly conscious of the fact that my mom is not with us. She is alone at home with scotty dog. And Pesach looms.
On the last day before lockdown starts we say our goodbyes. My mom, who is the strongest person I know, has been there for all of us every step of the way. She is fearless and kind. Her volunteering work will come to an end. Now, she looks small and vulnerable. She will be all by herself, and Pesach looms. My heart aches. I fight back the tears. We are not allowed to hug. We don’t usually hug. But now we are not going to see each other for three weeks, even though we will be in the same city. It feels wrong. We hug. We say goodbye. “No hugging!” says my husband. And Pesach Looms.
We start preparing for Pesach. Alcohol was declared a non-essential item just before lockdown started. We rush from shop to shop to try and get some wine but are out of luck. My daughter looks at me reproachfully. “No Wine. No worry”, I say. We will manage with grape-juice. We’re sorted. After all, different times call for different measures”.
We start plotting on how we can break lockdown to ensure my mother is with us for the Seder, but just can’t do it. My sister-in-law suggests Zoom. Then we all can participate. My mom is in. My brothers are in. One lives in Australia and he too will join. Just a slight hitch: My family are religious. They have to consider. I can use my computer. Except I can’t. It is stuck to the wall in the lounge. My home is small, but not so small that I can conduct a zoom call from the lounge to the dining room. I find a selfie stick (my daughter won in it in a bingo competition at school) and convince one of my kids to let me use the phone. We set everything up before Yomtov. Sorted!
Pesach is tonight. We start preparing. I open the tap. No water comes out. I check my phone. There’s a message posted on our neighbourhood group whatsapp: it reads as follows: “Johannesburg Water: #EmergencyShutdown. Reason: replacement of 300mm valve; Impact: No water: Time: 0900 – 21:30”. Seriously? No water?! No problem! I acknowledge my privilege and send my son shopping for bottled water. My daughter’s kneidlach are the best ever. Huge and fluffy. Through major huffing and puffing and pull it all together. The table looks beautiful. The appointed time comes, and for once, technology works beautifully.
My mom is brave. She has set her table beautifully. My brother in Australia looks tired but happy. Why had we never thought of zooming him before for all family simchas, I wonder? It is the first time since he left the country that we are all together as a family on Seder night. We read the Haggadah. We reminisce about tunes from our youth. Our kids sing new tunes. We compare food that we are eating. It turns out to be an excellent and meaningful evening indeed.
Afterwards, we clean up as best as we can (without water). I feel a huge sense of relief. And then, KABOOM!!!! There’s a huge explosion. The lights go out. My husband runs outside. He congregates with other men in the neighbourhood to see what has happened. I am praying there’s no fire. Again, I remember that we have no water to put it out. Turns out a transformer has blown. The indications are there will be no electricity in the upcoming days. I crawl into bed and sigh. No electricity? No stress! We’ve survived the first night of Pesach in lockdown.
Ma Nishtana halaila hazeh...? If you have to ask, then I don’t know where you’ve been these past five months.