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A modern twist keeps sacred tradition alive as Passover Zoom unites Baltimore family separated by coronavirus

The Sharfstein family used Zoom to keep its Passover Seder tradition alive Wednesday during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy of Josh Sharfstein.
The Sharfstein family used Zoom to keep its Passover Seder tradition alive Wednesday during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy of Josh Sharfstein. (Photo courtesy of Josh Sharfstein)

At 76 years old, Dr. Margaret Sharfstein knows she really shouldn’t be going to Eddie’s Market right now. Not when she’s considered at high risk for complications from the coronavirus.

But she needed apples to make charoset for her family, just as she has for decades. The dish — a mix of fruits, nuts and wine — is a staple of a Passover Seder.

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So Margaret’s son dropped off a box of apples Sunday on the doorstep of her North Baltimore home. By Wednesday afternoon, she had transformed them into fresh charoset and filled up a quart container. She left that outside in a box for her grandson to pick up.

That night, three generations of the Sharfstein family savored the traditional dish, connected by a treasured old recipe and a Zoom video conference, even as a modern plague kept them apart.

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“How’s the charoset?” asked Margaret, leaning into a microphone.

“Oh,” her daughter-in-law replied, “it’s excellent.”

Passover, the holiday during which Jewish families recount their ancestors’ storied exodus from slavery in Egypt, is always a big deal in the Sharfstein household.

But in this family of doctors — one of Margaret’s sons is Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, a former Baltimore health commissioner and former state health secretary — everyone agreed there was no way to get together this year.

“A tradition like this, it’s not just something that you’ve always done. Your parents have always done it. Their parents always did it.”


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Instead, Josh and his two siblings got to work organizing a virtual Seder and printing out copies of a Haggadah prayer book from 30minuteseder.com.

Dr. Sarah Kawasaki, his sister, who works in addiction medicine, said they’re lucky their elderly parents are tech-savvy and have adapted easily to Zoom. In the last two weeks alone, Margaret has been to a virtual bat mitzvah and a virtual shiva, a ritual of Jewish mourning.

But it’s hard on Sarah’s three young kids not to be with Grandma and Grandpa on Passover. They tuned in from central Pennsylvania, while another brother and his two kids joined the livestream from Tennessee. The elder Sharfsteins live in Guilford, while Josh’s family is in Mount Washington.

When they logged on at 6 p.m., the grandchildren waved excitedly at the camera, while Margaret snapped photos on her iPhone of the digital family reunion.

“Let’s see how long your hair is,” she said to her 9-year-old granddaughter. “It grew even longer since the last time I saw you.”

Everything about a Seder is carefully prescribed, and steeped in tradition. The Hebrew word “seder” means “order,” and twice, Jews are asked to wash their hands as part of the ritual meal.

The tie-in to the frequent hand-washing recommended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus didn’t escape the senior generation.

“We’re washing our hands 50 times this year,” joked Dr. Steven Sharfstein, the family patriarch, a psychiatrist and former CEO of the Sheppard Pratt Health System, before quizzing each grandchild on how many times that day they’d scrubbed.

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Later, they dipped their fingers in wine to commemorate the 10 plagues God is said to have sent down upon the Egyptians. Steven pulled out props to demonstrate each one: little stuffed frogs and “wild beasts.”

“We want to be free of this 11th plague,” he said.

References to COVID-19 are unavoidable for the medically oriented Sharfsteins. Sarah has been trying to juggle her regular work battling the opioid crisis with the new public health emergency.

On Wednesday alone, Josh participated in three different coronavirus briefings, including one with leaders of the Maryland General Assembly. He’s now a vice dean at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health.

He’s trying to spread the word about how seriously people need to be taking COVID-19. Two weeks ago, he held a telephone town hall with Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott. One caller asked if it was safe for him to celebrate Passover in person with his extended family.

Josh choked up a little before telling the man: “No.”

“We have to put our health first,” he said.

It’s hard for him to grapple with how deeply the virus is changing lives and rituals.

“A tradition like this, it’s not just something that you’ve always done,” Josh said. “Your parents have always done it. Their parents always did it.”

The Seder traditionally ends with people singing, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

The Sharfsteins hope that next year, they will simply be with each other.

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