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 Guterson’s 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.