By Justin Regan
Pesach, the festival of freedom (and bad macaroons), is a season of many traditions, like deep-cleaning your house, discovering quinoa and comparing anyone you disagree with politically to Pharaoh.
Another growing Passover tradition is to place additional objects on your seder plate. While the traditional plate is there to remind us of our struggles in Egypt and our exodus to freedom, more current objects can remind us of our present-day struggles and hopes for a better future. So an orange on your plate could represent LGBTQ rights, cashews are to honor the troops and an olive is for the hope of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
If there’s a cause or a movement you can think of, there’s probably an animal, mineral or vegetable you can place on your table next to the usual seder plate suspects.
Last year I started my own tradition by placing a tin of herring next to the seder plate. It’s to remind me of the tragedy of the COVID pandemic, and the miracle that I survived my own diagnosis. A can of fish representing a global pandemic might seem like a bit of a stretch, but for me the symbolism is deeply personal.
My wife (then fiancee) and I got COVID last February right before Purim. We were incredibly blessed that it was nothing more than a nasty flu for both of us. But for several harrowing weeks, I lost my senses of taste and smell. That was the hardest part of having COVID. Not only was I in quarantine and in fear for my health, I was also denied my go-to coping strategy of eating my feelings.
It was at this moment that I tried pickled herring for the first time in my life. It was an instant attraction. The pungent, in-your-face flavors of salt and fish and onions somehow managed to power through my severely reduced sense of taste and deliver something … delicious.
I even went so far as to make a pickled herring hamantash that Purim. The thought of pickled fish baked into a cookie might make you gag (my wife nearly vomited from the smell, and the cat went crazy), and it might have also made me queasy under normal circumstances. But it truly was a hamantash for its time and, to date, the tastiest one I’ve ever had.
But it was more than just the taste. When I got COVID last year, I was already going through a tough time. I was underemployed and adjusting to life 3,000 miles away from my family. Spending time with friends was limited to the occasional outdoor gathering in the freezing cold and it had been months since anything on Zoom had been fun. The loss of two of my senses further closed me off from the world around me. At times, I felt like a shell that was leaking more and more of my spirit by the day.
The intensity of the fish cookie jolted me out of the narrow space I found myself in and reminded me that I was very much alive, and truly blessed to be a survivor of a disease that, as of now, has killed at least 6 million people worldwide.
Life moves fast. We rarely have the chance to take a breath and focus on what’s important. A Passover seder gives us an opportunity to do just that. And for me, not only is it a moment to reflect on how I was delivered from Egypt, but also on how I was delivered from a modern plague. That’s why if you ever come to my house for Passover, you’ll notice a humble can of herring next to my seder plate. Don’t worry, I won’t open the smelly thing until after you leave.
Justin Regan is the marketing and administrative coordinator for the Macks Center for Jewish Education. He produces the American Rabbi Project podcast.