A Very 2021 Passover

Passover was this past Sunday, and a friend recruited me and a couple other friends to help her plan an online Seder. For those who are unfamiliar, a Seder is a traditional Passover dinner. In addition to the meal itself, it also consists of over a dozen steps (which is actually where a Seder get’s name- it basically translates to “checklist”). For the Seder we used ohyay.co, a lesser known videochat platform that’s crazy feature rich. It allows you to make a digital space with effectively unlimited rooms, and every room can be extensively customized. Customization consists of editing a background image (which can be animated), foreground images, participants, and interactive assets within the room. Each of these elements can be extensively customized, to allow moving, resizing, distorting, recoloring, taking, dropping, linking, and more, all of which can be conditional on a variety of things.

With all this flexibility, we made a house that seems like an appropriate place to hold a Seder- somewhere your bubbie might live. In terms of rooms, it was a more or less complete house, featuring an exterior, a foyer, a dining room for the seder, a tv room, a living room, a kitchen, a bedroom, a backyard, two bathrooms, and a couple other rooms. While this might seem like overkill (and you might be right), the rooms we made in addition to the dining room served several purposes. First, they make the whole thing more immersive. Guests arrive outside the house, and make their way to the dining room through a foyer. The bathrooms don’t feature any videochat capability and only allow one person at a time. Their purpose is to allow people who need to excuse themselves from the party to still appear listed as present in the virtual house. Beyond the immersion, the other rooms were also used before and after the actual Seder as a place for everyone to hang out. And anyone familiar with Passover knows that one step is to have a scavenger hunt where you look for pieces of matzah hidden throughout the house. We were able to actually do that, and the guests really enjoyed it.

In addition to creating the space for the Seder, we also made a haggadah, the document containing instructions for the actual sequence of steps that make up the Seder ritual. While a haggadah is normally a physical document (most Jewish families have a stack of them stashed in a drawer somewhere), for this online Passover we made a set of slides that were presented on a screen within the virtual dining room. We wanted to make the whole thing fun, and given that most of the guests were millennials and many worked in some kind of tech job, the haggadah was given a theme of something out of a startup founder’s pitch or a TED talk.

In addition to making the whole thing more fun, humor was also useful for dealing with parts of the Seder that I wanted to include for the sake of completeness and tradition, but which weren’t consistent with my values. While I love Passover, it’s a very old school holiday, and a lot of what’s in the book of Exodus is, shall we say… problematic. Basically there’s a lot of singing about how great it is that god killed an insane number of Egyptians who had zero say in the Pharaoh’s decisions to not let the Jews go. (For an example, just read the lyrics of the traditional Passover song Dayenu.)

Another example would be the four children- a Seder tradition that describes how four hypothetical children might react to the story of the Exodus. One child is described as “wicked” for not personally identifying with the Passover story, and is told that had they been in Egypt, god would have excluded them from being rescued. This was included with sarcasm in order to complete the traditional without endorsing something I don’t agree with:

The troubled child asks: “What does this Passover service mean to you?”

Per Passover tradition, the parent should answer, “It is because of what God did for me when I came out of Egypt. Specifically ‘me’ and not ‘you.’ If you had been there (with your attitude), you wouldn’t have been redeemed.”

By telling your child that God does not like them, this is sure to correct behavioral problems.

The whole event was a big success. Around 20 people came, and I think everyone had a really good time. This was no small feat, considering that despite my nostalgia for Passover from when I was a kid, there’s no denying that a Seder is by design slow and at times straight up boring. It consists of over a dozen steps that include a lot of praying, reading, hand washing, and mostly listening before you’re actually allowed to eat. Combining that with the notorious boredom of an online party, and this could have been a perfect storm of boredom manifesting in a dozen cameras turned off while people not-so-secretly browse Twitter and wait for the Seder to end. Instead, people actually participated, both by volunteering for the audience participation parts, and through the use of Twitch style reacts that let them comment on the ongoing event without interrupting or derailing it. I certainly had a great time, and enjoyed recapturing a little bit of a highly social tradition that was otherwise lost as we navigate our way through the pandemic.

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