Inspired by Reboot’s Plas­tover project, Olivia Guter­son address­es sin­gle-use plas­tics in her recon­struc­tion of the Seder table, At Our Table. Pho­to Cred­it: Sal Rodriguez.

I learned about the Great Pacif­ic Garbage Patch when I was 25, when one of my stu­dents wrote a research paper about it in a com­po­si­tion class that I was teach­ing. He wrote about find­ing trash in the water, wash­ing up on a Cal­i­for­nia beach when he was a child.

I was a year away from hav­ing my son. We were already dis­cussing it, the preg­nan­cy. We spat into plas­tic tubes to have our DNA test­ed, to make sure we were not car­ri­ers of any genet­ic dis­ease. As Ashke­nazi Jews, we were most­ly con­cerned about Tay-Sachs.

We were sen­si­ble peo­ple, thought­ful, decid­ing to bring a child into the world.


When I was teach­ing that com­po­si­tion class, I was liv­ing away from all of my fam­i­ly for the first time. When the Jew­ish hol­i­days came and went, I did noth­ing to hon­or them. Some­times my moth­er would send a pic­ture of a lit meno­rah. Some­times some of us got togeth­er near DC.


The Great Pacif­ic Patch was dis­cov­ered in 1997, 12 years before I learned about it.

In 2016, 31 experts held a pan­el dis­cus­sion titled Marine debris, plas­tics and microplas­tics” at the Unit­ed Nations.

The most pop­u­lar YouTube videos about it are from 2018.

Almost 20 years for it to go from dis­cov­ery, to polit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tion, to pop­u­lar knowledge.


In 20 years, my fam­i­ly went from hol­i­day din­ners of over 20 peo­ple, to no hol­i­day din­ners at all.

I heard sto­ries of even more din­ners, big­ger din­ners, when Grand­ma Sarah was still alive, every Fri­day night at her house. My namesake.


Through­out my child­hood, we were look­ing for places to fit all of us.

Some­times we met at Tiffany’s Din­er on Roo­sevelt Boule­vard. I remem­ber Rosh Hashanah there. It felt like an even big­ger cel­e­bra­tion than it was, with every­one else’s fam­i­ly there to cel­e­brate the New Year, too.


My Uncle Eddie was a bar­tender at a coun­try club and some­times we were allowed to use a big room there. Not a pret­ty room. Just a big room. The tables were set up in a U and the ceil­ing was low. It felt like we were in back.” Like a pri­vate club. Like an ille­gal card game.


When Aunt Pat was alive, we ate at her and Uncle Nashie’s house. I remem­ber sit­ting at her table with all the sil­ver­ware laid out. A bowl of matzah ball soup. Gefilte fish, which I nev­er ate, but I always accept­ed. Some­one would want anoth­er piece — often my moth­er, stick­ing her fork in and pulling it onto her own plate.


My son recent­ly refused a choco­late from some­one, see­ing that it was a kind he does not like. You always say yes, I said. You say yes and give it to me if you don’t want it.

I know that I should be grate­ful. My son has nev­er expe­ri­enced hunger or scarcity.

I bore him into this world of plagues, and he expe­ri­ences com­fort and abun­dance and joy.

But I feel guilty that I have not taught him more about survival.


I had this idea that plas­tics nev­er degrad­ed. Maybe from my child­hood. Maybe from pic­tures of plas­tics in land­fills and oceans.

As an adult I can feel plas­tics degrade. A Ziploc I use over and over for trips — it wears down between my fingers.

The bag I use for recy­cling now has a dozen small rips. It’s soft and los­ing its shape. But I’ll keep using it until I can’t.

But even when I can’t use it for its pur­pose, I can see how much plas­tic will be left for the Earth, inconsumable.


At Passover din­ner we became Barbara’s chil­dren.” Barbara’s chil­dren don’t speak Hebrew. Don’t read Hebrew. Can’t read the questions.

Some­one would say that we could read them in English.

Anoth­er moth­er, with chil­dren in Hebrew school, would say that her chil­dren could say the ques­tions, after, in Hebrew. And my uncles and aunts nod­ded their heads.

I felt like a bad Jew. But I didn’t want to be a good Jew either. I just didn’t want to feel shame.


I loved any­time we were Barbara’s chil­dren.” I felt clos­er to my moth­er. And it was at these din­ners that rel­a­tives would pull me close and say, You look just like your moth­er.

They’d turn and ask each oth­er, Doesn’t she look just like Barbie? 

Uncle Eddie would pull me on his lap and tell me, You’re the pret­ti­est girl here! And he’d pinch my nose, and pre­tend that he had it, his thumb between his fin­gers’ knuck­les. And if I did it to him, he made dif­fer­ent nois­es, loud nois­es. The whole room was loud.


We didn’t hide the afiko­man, ever. I learned about it when I was 10. We had cho­sen to have our seder at a friend’s house. I didn’t know why. The din­ner felt small and nor­mal, like any time we might vis­it. Not the spec­ta­cle of my family.


My friend let me find the afiko­man — told me right where it would be — and so I received the reward.

I won­dered why my fam­i­ly didn’t do the fun part.


But Passover wasn’t fun. I looked for­ward to it to see my fam­i­ly — I didn’t pay atten­tion to what it was about. I want­ed to sep­a­rate myself from my Jew­ish his­to­ry if it meant the suf­fer­ing of my peo­ple, which I always imag­ined meant future suf­fer­ing for myself.


It takes far more than 20 years for a water bot­tle to break down. It takes over 400.

I imag­ine my fam­i­ly as sol­id plas­tic fig­urines, set up at the bot­tom of the ocean, sat at a table — eat­ing, laugh­ing, creas­es at our eyes — last­ing much longer than we do, than we have.


But plas­tics have only been around, mass-pro­duced, since 1907. 114 years. And small plas­tic pieces already cloud the waters. Microflakes. Microbeads. Microfibers. The less stur­dy plas­tics, falling apart and away.

And this stops the pho­to­syn­the­sis of marine plant life. And this stops the absorp­tion of CO2. And this throws the whole plan­et off bal­ance. Which is euphemistic.


I don’t know if I was sup­posed to give up on hav­ing Passover with­out the peo­ple I loved, but I did. The din­ner wasn’t about more than that for me and they were gone.


After Aunt Pat died, no one want­ed to have my fam­i­ly over their house any­more. There were so many of us. That’s what they said. There’s so many of them. And there were — me and my three sib­lings and my par­ents and my grand­fa­ther. We hard­ly fit in the minivan.


Passover always had the table set up nice­ly. It wasn’t like shi­va with the deli plat­ters that you walked by with your paper plate, peel­ing the cold cuts off with a fork. And then you found a spot to eat with the plate on your lap, usu­al­ly on the cor­ner of a couch or the side of a chair some­one was already sit­ting on.


In 400 years, if my fam­i­ly is still around, it will not be with much help from me. I want to have only my one son.

(That my child is my first-born son” is not lost on me — the weight of that, the history.)

None of my sib­lings talk about hav­ing a lot of kids. None of us even stayed togeth­er our­selves. We live in dif­fer­ent coun­tries or dif­fer­ent coasts, and some­times we come back, but we talk about leav­ing again.

As a child, I had dreamt of hav­ing fam­i­ly din­ners again. Set­ting a table. Serv­ing the food. Providing.


I’m try­ing to teach my son the best parts of being Jew­ish. I’m try­ing to fig­ure out what those parts are, when, look­ing over my life, I love shi­va most — so what is it? Hav­ing this way to mourn? Hav­ing some­one who mourns you?


I don’t think fast­ing is one of the best parts. Or the Book of Life — nego­ti­at­ing our place in it, year after year. But I think reflec­tion and atone­ment are.


I don’t think the Four Ques­tions are one of the best parts of being Jew­ish. Not the salt water and bit­ter herbs.

Though I do love the per­for­mance of it. The tra­di­tion liv­ing out through the motions of our bodies.


My son will nev­er know the giant fam­i­ly din­ners. He won’t hear the Yid­dish in all the con­ver­sa­tion around the table.

But he will also nev­er see swastikas all over his house — as I often came across them, my grand­fa­ther always read­ing a non­fic­tion book about the Holo­caust, as if he could fig­ure it out.


For over 3,000 years the Jew­ish peo­ple have cel­e­brat­ed Passover.

I think of the time as only 6 plas­tic bot­tles, one com­ing into exis­tence right as the one before it has bro­ken down completely.

I think of it as 3,000 years from now, 30 more pass­ings of 100 years of plas­tic con­sump­tion and waste. The Earth we will inhab­it then.

I think of it as an excep­tion­al feat, too — main­tain­ing the seder, the fes­ti­val, main­tain­ing anything.

I think of it as 150 pass­ings of 20 years. The nuclear fam­i­ly trans­formed. The extend­ed fam­i­ly trans­formed. My son, pos­si­bly a father him­self, 20 years from now.

In 3,000 years, my imag­ined plas­tic fig­urines of us are all still there, at the bot­tom of the ocean. But now they’re featureless.


We are told there are bet­ter bags, decom­pos­able bags, to use — but they won’t decom­pose with­out the sun. And they won’t get any sun in a land­fill. One prob­lem com­pli­cates the next, con­flates and compounds.


Some­times I feel like I’m not doing enough and some­times I think I’m doing as much as I can, and if any­one asks me to do more I’m going to explode. Take it up with the exec­u­tives. Take it up with the sci­en­tists. I recy­cle and I teach my son what I can and I’m rais­ing my new fam­i­ly in the shad­ow of the one I lost.

This piece is a com­pan­ion lit­er­ary response to Olivia Guter­sons At Our Table, pro­duced with Reboot for Dwelling in a Time of Plagues

Inspired by Reboot’s Plas­tover project, At Our Table is a reimag­in­ing of a Passover table con­struct­ed from local­ly sourced, dis­card­ed sin­gle-use plas­tics, illu­mi­nat­ing the con­cept of con­ve­nience, throw­away cul­ture, and envi­ron­men­tal respon­si­bil­i­ty dur­ing a hol­i­day cen­tered on the joy and the sac­ri­fices nec­es­sary in find­ing our own per­son­al lib­er­a­tion. The piece sup­ports Plas­tover’s chal­lenges Jews to give up sin­gle-use plas­tics for the eight days of Passover as a new inter­pre­ta­tion of hametz to link the sac­ri­fice to con­tem­po­rary problems.

A Passover sup­ple­ment includ­ing ten authors and ten artists respond­ing to ten mod­ern plagues can be down­loaded here. Con­tribut­ing authors include Sarah Blake, Mar­ra B. Gad, Ayelet Gun­­dar-Goshen, Let­ty Cot­tin Pogre­bin, Rebec­ca Sof­fer, Rab­bi Abby Stein, Darin Strauss, Michael Twit­ty, Rab­bi Dr. Shmu­ly Yan­klowitz, and Moriel Rothman-Zecher.

Dwelling in a Time of Plagues is a Jew­ish cre­ative response to real-world plagues of our time. Col­lec­tive­ly, the com­mis­sions in this con­stel­la­tion of art projects around North Amer­i­ca grap­ple with con­tem­po­rary crises: the glob­al pan­dem­ic, insti­tu­tion­al racism, xeno­pho­bia, ageism, forced iso­la­tion, and the cli­mate cri­sis. Dwelling is gen­er­ous­ly sup­port­ed by CANVAS.

Sarah Blake is the recip­i­ent of a Lit­er­a­ture Fel­low­ship from the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts. Her writ­ing has appeared in The Keny­on Review, The Three­pen­ny Review, Slice, and else­where. She won the 2019 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Debut Fiction.