Have you ever been to a dinner where the host kicked everyone out before they could say goodbye? What about one where no one ate, but a bearish man wearing a silver toga sang the Jewish Exodus story at the top of his lungs?
I have. It was my virtual Seder.
Though I didn’t grow up regularly going to Seders, I felt compelled to host one this year, for the first time, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This April, everyone close to me was scared, isolated, and needing ritual and community. Jews have celebrated Passover in hiding, at refugee camps, and even in Nazi detainment, so it seemed I should be able to pull one off during lockdown.
But what conditions make it possible for meaningful connection to happen across long-distance dinner tables?
It turns out, artists and activists have been holding virtual meals for at least a decade, when technology like Skype made livestreaming widely accessible. Even in pre-pandemic days, there were boundaries that people could not physically cross, but which people felt the need to connect over. Creative problem-solvers found ways to use this technology that made these connections feel natural.
“Cooking and eating helped break the inherent distance that technology creates. We had a somewhat shared experience of the smells and tastes.”Jon Rubin, a Pittsburgh-based social practice artist
From 2010 through 2017, Pittsburgh-based social practice artists Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski ran a takeout restaurant, Conflict Kitchen, which only served food from nations “with which the United States is in conflict,” including Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. They also offered cross-border cooking classes and dinner parties via Skype as a part of this project.
Food and the conventions of sharing a meal turn out to be great catalysts for dissolving external and internal boundaries, explains Rubin. “The cooking and eating part helped break the inherent distance that technology creates,” he says. “We at least had a somewhat shared experience of the smells and tastes.”
Since 2011, for his project Virtual Dinner Guest, documentary filmmaker Eric Maddox has been hosting virtual dinner conversations through Skype between Americans or Europeans and countries enduring active military conflicts. For Maddox, eating together on camera was a way to demystify each other’s lives. Seeing into people’s homes, watching them knock things over as they try to navigate a crowded table, and seeing their kids run around the room while the adults are talking is the stuff that “starts to break down the simplistic images you have in your mind of other people’s cultures.”
Hoping to generate dialogue through virtual dining like Rubin and Maddox had, I found a PDF for a Haggadah with Zoom prompts built in and emailed my guests a link.
At the appointed time, people began to “arrive” — except for someone who had to cancel at the last minute, hospitalized with COVID-19 complications. One guest, a little behind schedule, was still walking their dog and streamed a view of the dog’s wagging tail. We poured the first glass of wine more or less when planned, though.
And then confusion ensued.
The PDF Haggadah had none of the normal stuff. There are four questions that usually get asked near the beginning, but shuffle as we all did through our PDFs, none of us could find them. I finally just screenshared a YouTube video that the text was prompting, thinking it would deliver the questions.
All 13 of us sat in stunned silence while characters from The Lego Movie filled the screen and a tenor in a fluffy white wig belted out a song called “Defying Slavery” — set to the tune of “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. The video featured lo-fi special effects of burning bushes and dripping blood. (Otherwise, it was a fairly accurate telling of the Exodus story.)
We continued with the Passover rituals, asking our own questions in place of the usual ones: How are you getting by? What kinds of things are you doing, or do you know about, to help people out? Are you wearing masks outside now?
Guests showed off the clever pandemic-pantry substitutions they’d come up with for matzo, bitter herbs, and the apple-nut-honey mixture called charoseth.
Half the time, our mics were making too much noise to hear each other, so there was a lot of “Wait, what did you say?” and “You froze — could you say that again?”
Then, as we turned to the actual meal and I took a slurp of my matzo ball soup, my internet went down. It took a while to get back online, and when I did, only one pair of guests was still connected to the videoconference, washing their dishes.
Such glitches are nothing new to Rubin. “Video conferencing technologies create an inherently clunky and glitchy form of conversation,” he points out. Virtual dinners often include more awkward silences than in-person meals, he says, but cooking with video-linked friends can help break the ice. “When our hands were busy chopping, stirring, or peeling, conversations started to happen more organically,” he says. “Perhaps it was that we didn’t feel forced to stare at each other so directly via the screen, which, when you think of it, is not something we do very much in person.” Maddox kept his guests occupied too: his dinners double as planning sessions for short films that the participants would later make.
At both artists’ dinners, a video projection took up one end of table, extending it across the two rooms at roughly true-to-life scale. It was still awkward when a screen froze or someone made too much dining noise near a microphone, but the fact that each side of the screen have a whole group in semi-circle helps reduce the pressure to make direct digital eye contact.
Maddox and Rubin’s experiments and my own haphazard attempt to perform an ancient ritual with high technology are all part of a cultural shift that the pandemic is accelerating. Consumer video technology is reducing the amount of staging in our relationships, and it’s foregrounding the messy stuff that we usually take great pains to hide. Now that we’ve seen news anchors broadcasting from their living rooms, the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in their real-life rumpled sweatsuits, and our co-workers among their piles of laundry, trying to keep their kids quiet while they report on weekly work deliverables, our compassion for each other may outweigh our internalized pressure to present unrealistic versions of ourselves. This awareness of our imperfections as acceptable extends to sharing meals, whether they’re religious traditions or just the ritual of the dinner party.
After my first attempt at a virtual Seder, I’ve thrown off the yoke of trying to create anything approaching an idealized ritual meal — in person or online — in the future. If I did it again, I would likely just have everyone join some kind of third party video conference programming, letting them handle the ceremonial part, and then turn dinner into a private breakout group. I’d put my phone or laptop to one side of me where I could hear clearly — but not necessarily stare at the screen — and eat and talk with friends as if they were sitting next to me.
And if it didn’t work easily, I’d move to speakerphone. Because it’s just nice to be “together” to some degree during a holiday. It doesn’t have to be perfect.