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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Downtown Seder

Last night was a culmination of good fortune, good luck, and -- as always -- my wife running late. The good fortune came in the shape of a dinner invite on the night after we finished cleaning our kitchen for Passover. The good luck was our good friends Miriam and Alan from the band Stereo Sinai inviting us to the Downtown Seder. And the running late ... well, we just won't go there.

The Downtown Seder is a creation of Michael Dorf, half postmodern religious ritual and half cabaret. Rock stars and stand-up comedians and various random famous people are each assigned one step of the seder. And then it's you in a room with bands like Stereo Sinai, comedians like Rachel Feinstein (who was on Last Comic Standing with our boy Myq Kaplan), half-band-half-comedians like Good for the Jews, and Dr. Ruth. Yes, I said Dr. Ruth.


dr ruth seder

(Yes, she's that short pink dot in the picture. We weren't sitting that far, but she is short, 4'7". My Holocaust-survivor grandfather who's 4'11" looks down at her.*)

And she read the Four Questions, too. Granted, she was not the youngest one in the room (she'll be 83 years old on June 4) but she did it, and she did it up. Backed on a bluegrass guitar by C Lanzbom, she sang the first question solo, and then instructed the audience to accompany her. "If you sing with me," she said in that undeniably adorable German accent, "I promise that you will have good sex for all the days of your life." And if we don't? "Remember," she told us, "I used to be a sniper in the Haganah."

Did I sing? You'd better believe I sang.

A few of the guests were esoteric. Others were total crowd-pleasers. Here's Stereo Sinai, courtesy of my cheapo camera-phone:

Their take on the Son Who Doesn't Know How to Ask a Question was one of only two all-out dance numbers (the other being, of course, Joshua Nelson and the Kosher Gospel Choir) -- but each act was so well-thought-out and cool and unusual that I kept wanting to call someone and let them listen. I'm not a bootleggy type of person, but I wish I had a bootleg of last night. I kept wanting to write things down. I kept wanting to remember them. Joshua Foer* summed it up: "Our tradition demands not just that we eat matzah, but that we interact with it and explain it." Or, to paraphrase Faulkner: Not only is the past not dead, it isn't even past.

Because we're Hasidic and don't get out much, this is probably the closest I'll ever come to a non-religious seder. Boxes of Manischewitz matzah on the table. Behind us, Rachel Feinstein was getting down with woman in a severe Florida-retirement hat decked with flowers. The singer of Good for the Jews was wearing a ruffled tuxedo shirt.

Yes, it was bizarre having a seder a week before Passover starts. It was bizarre having matzah on the table in Manischewitz boxes instead of knitted sleeves, and celebrating with two hundred people I'd never met. It might have been a celebration of freedom, but it was also a celebration of getting down.
* - Who also referred to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, as "the great cognitive scientist," which probably nobody else cared about but which absolutely made my night.

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