April 4, 2012
DIYers take on Pesach
At first glance, it’s hard to tell if Eileen Levinson’s Alternative Seder Plate is deeply thoughtful or merely playful. Or perhaps just coolly irreverent.
Levinson adapted her Alternative Seder Plate concept to design the cover of this newspaper this week. In its original, her seder plate is a 30-inch-square black-and-white design, printed on paper with a borderless circle and set into a backdrop of tiny black dots. At its center, two small silhouettes of people are encircled in text that reads “You Are Here.” Surrounding the couple are six large, empty circles each outlined in small text that says: “Passover Symbol Here.”
One corner says “Welcome to Egypt,” while inverted type in the opposite corner says “Welcome to Promised Land.”
Levinson is a 31-year-old graphic designer and artist based in Los Angeles. She created this “plate” in 2009 for the Yiddishkayt Los Angeles’ Doikayt (Here-ness) social justice-oriented seder, and it is now featured on Haggadot.com, a Web site she founded three years ago.
About 50,000 people are expected to log on to Haggadot.com this year to create their own haggadah using resources uploaded by hundreds of people.
The Web site offers multiple options, all of them playful, thoughtful and reverently subversive, offering ideas of how tradition can be toyed with, but for a greater purpose.
“Ritual can be set up as a game, so by playing the game you start to have a conversation about the things that matter to you. And as you get engaged in conversation, you realize how deeply rooted that conversation is in Jewish tradition,” Levinson said in a recent conversation at her Pico-Robertson neighborhood apartment, which also doubles as her workspace. “And maybe those traditions were at one point neglected or cast off as being too dogmatic, but now they can start to have meaning again.”
Levinson has also made a Commandment Scorecard that includes all 613 commandments, with blank circles you can fill in with a bingo marker as you fulfill each mitzvah, as well as a deck of cards that takes players through a shuffle of prayer gestures.
Levinson’s art taps into the ethos today’s young adults are bringing to their seders. They want seders where the conversation is collaborative, the themes personally relevant and socially aware, and the resources as diverse as the people around the table. Traditions are important and respected, but also might be idiosyncratically altered or eliminated. A leader may be appointed to keep things moving, but the hierarchy is flat — the seder is a crowd-sourced effort that aims, ultimately, to produce a spiritual/socially relevant/Jewishly connected experience.
And it’s not only young people who are checking it out. Increasingly, adults of all ages are looking past the irreverence to see the potential for relevance in these new do-it-yourself seders.
“You are applying Passover to a generation of people who really enjoy creativity and getting their hands dirty as part of understanding something,” said writer/director Jill Soloway, founder of East Side Jews, an organization that holds monthly events “at unlikely venues during unpopular holidays for Jews with confused identities,” according to its Web site.
East Side Jews hosted a panel discussion that included Soloway and Levinson this week at Skylight Books focusing on the “New American Haggadah,” edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, and exploring ways to personalize seder.
A TRADITION OF REVOLUTION
To be sure, tinkering with the seder is hardly a new idea — in fact, it is built into the holiday and may be one of the reasons Passover is the single-most observed holiday on the Jewish calendar. Thousands of versions of the haggadah have been produced over many centuries.
“In every generation, you are obligated to see yourself as if you yourself left Egypt,” the haggadah demands.
And later on, “Whoever discusses the story extensively is praiseworthy.”
“The haggadah gives you permission to make the seder experience speak to you, where you’re at, right now,” said Ron Wolfson, Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and author of “Passover: The Spiritual Guide for Family Celebration” (Jewish Lights). “The seder is not supposed to be a history lesson. It’s supposed to be a multisensory experience of the Exodus from Egypt itself, and whatever Egypt is constraining you now. That ought to be the topic of the evening — how to place yourself not in history, but in the ongoing story of your spiritual life and your connection to Judaism.”
And Jews have read themselves into the haggadah for centuries. Artwork portraying the four sons, for instance, has included communists, emancipationists, Israeli pioneers, Chasidim or American rebellious teens as the simple, wise, wicked and nonverbal children.
In 1969, 800 blacks and whites attended the first “Freedom Seder,” which Rabbi Arthur Waskow hosted in the basement of a church in Washington, D.C., on the first anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The 1973 “Jewish Catalog,” a countercultural Jewish playbook by Richard Siegel and Michael and Sharon Strassfeld, suggested vegetarians might use a beet on the seder plate in place of the zeroa, traditionally a lamb shank, and the vegetarian “Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb,” edited by Roberta Kalechofsky, appeared in the mid-1970s. Feminist seders continue to be popular today.
21st CENTURY SEDER
So if all that started in the 1960s, what’s so revolutionary about today’s seders?
For one, many in the Jewish community never embraced the seder revolution of the 1960s and ’70s but instead stuck with the old take-turns-reading-out-of-the-Maxwell-House-haggadah model. And within families that have added more interaction, more theatrics, more activity to the seder, this next generation is simply eager to add its own layer to the story.
A 21st century seder uses technology to access a vast spectrum of resources, and it lets ideas emerge from conversation and activity rather than being frontally presented. The seder is less likely to be singularly themed — feminist or civil rights, say — than to incorporate a patchwork of personal and societal ideas that make up the hybrid identity of this generation.
They want ownership and personal meaning, and are not willing to wait for the natural turnover of generations so they can take the lead.
“I went home two seders ago, and at the end of it, I was like, ‘I can’t do that again,’ ” said Tami Reiss, a 30-year-old Web product manager who lives in Los Angeles.
Reiss’ parents live in Florida and are Orthodox; each year they go through the entire text of the haggadah, mostly with her father leading.
“I think there is a big difference between a patriarch leading the seder and being the main source of information, as opposed to everyone bringing some level of curiosity and ability to ask and reply to questions,” Reiss said. “When one person is leading, it’s harder to get that sense of ownership.”
Last year, Reiss hosted her own seder, with the benefit of a grant from Birthright Next. The organization reimburses alumni of Birthright Israel trips who host guests for Shabbat and Passover in their homes. Nearly 550 hosts have signed up through Birthright Next this year, with 35 seders in Los Angeles.
Reiss and her co-host supplied some prompts, but, for the most part, they let the conversation flow. She wrote the Passover timeline out on cards, which she handed out, asking her guests to organize themselves according to the chronological order of the events on their cards.
“It was vegetarian, and we had fun; we played interactive seder games — it was kind of everything I ever wanted a seder to be at my parents’ house,” Reiss said.
Ayana Morse, community director of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, said that non-Jews who have attended her seder have been impressed with the depth of conversation.
“It sort of epitomizes the Jewish idea of the importance of asking questions by providing this forum for guided dinner-party conversation. I think people are sort of desperate for that deeper engagement with friends and peers,” Morse said.
Singer/songwriter Martin Storrow attended a prepare-for-Passover retreat with 30 people in their 20s last month, and he said the conversations were intensely serious, focused on the Arab Spring, modern-day slavery as well as the plight of women in repressive societies. Sometimes the conversation turned personal, looking at the internal constraints that can enslave a person — shame, greed, jealousy or an unwillingness to connect.
“I think a lot of people in my generation are looking for something relevant and something that is not just a story that happened a long time ago, but something that is happening now and constantly evolving,” Storrow said. “We live in an age where everything is constantly up to the minute and we’re always looking to tie things to our contemporary experience.”
The Passover retreat Storrow attended was a program of Moishe House, a cooperative living experiment where three or four people live as roommates in a house for a subsidized rent, and in turn host regular events for young Jews in the area. There are 46 Moishe Houses globally. Storrow is a founding member of the West L.A. Moishe House, which opened in December.
The retreat, which culminated in a mock seder, was about building confidence, according to organizer Rabbi Dan Horowitz, who runs Moishe House in the Midwest.
“More than anything else, what speaks to this generation is having the ability to have ownership, and having that ownership, being able to take off in any direction they find meaning in. They want to feel that whatever they are doing is not inauthentic, but a vibrant form of expression of everything that Passover should be,” Horowitz said.
The Moishe House in the San Fernando Valley, which opened in August 2011, will host a seder for an expected 25 to 35 guests. That group will use the just-released “New American Haggadah” as a framework — the multiple voices of various contemporary writers it offers is attractive to the democratic Moishe House — but the hosts also are encouraging full participation. Not only have guests been asked to bring a tradition from home and a dish to contribute to the meal, they all are invited to come early to help cook and set up.
“We’re all about the collaborative process. That’s the way we do things — someone writes a status update on Facebook, and everyone wants to comment on it and put in their own two cents. We re-Tweet — we interact that way. For seder, we want to see how the story can come together through different eyes,” said Terry Wunder, who lives in the Valley’s Moishe House.
With Haggadot.com, Levinson has tapped into the need for extreme personalization and multiple sources, allowing users both to contribute and to pull pages for a haggadah they can then download and print out to use on seder night.
DIYSeder.com, another site offering customizable haggadot, offers several tracts for users to choose from, and a for-pay premium service with extra features.
On Haggadot.com, artist, rabbis, comedians, professors and lay people of all ages and backgrounds are among the 180 people who have contributed.
In the past year, Haggadot.com became one of nine projects funded in the inaugural year of the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund, a collaboration of the Jim Joseph Foundation, Righteous Persons Foundation, and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
While Levinson initially expected the users to come primarily from her own age cohort, the site has proven attractive among people of all ages who want to craft a customized seder experience.
The maror section, for instance, listed 21 entries by the week before Passover (and more were being added daily), including a simple poster of a lion screaming “maRoooar”; a Jewish World Watch contribution that discusses the bitterness of abandonment for refugees in Africa; and a take on the bitterness of alienation from interfaithfamily.com. A maror taste test asks seder-goers to consider what is most bitter: Romaine lettuce? Horseradish? Tonic water? Dark chocolate? A recipe for a maror cocktail includes vodka, raw beet and horseradish (there’s a salty karpas cocktail as well). For every section, there are several versions of a simple, traditional page — the blessing in Hebrew, English and transliteration, and stage directions, for instance.
Videos on the site include school kids performing a Ten Plagues rap, an edgy animated Passover story, and a 20-second flip book. The video option will work for seder-goers who bring their iPads or laptops to the table – an increasing number, Levinson said (see accompanying story, Page 23).
ART AND THE SEDER
Art is a major component on Haggadot.com.
Ken Goldman, an Israel-based artist, plays with ritual objects with an insider’s intelligence and subtlety that induces viewers to about four seconds of brow-furrowing before figuring out his meaning. Goldman’s “Eco-bdikah set” is a spot-on satire, and he proffers a peel-and-stick ba’al teshuvah wine stain kit — for those whose clean haggadot might betray that they are new to Jewish life.
In a more traditionally drawn style, Will Deutsch’s sketches provide a caricature-like nostalgic take on Passover moments, including one showing a search for the afikomen, and another a school kid on a bench eying a sad piece of matzah while another boy enjoys a hamburger.
“I think that there is this question for a lot of people today of what is relevant to me about Judaism,” Deutsch said. “There are different ways in which they connect with it … and I think the works I make create a new visual vocabulary that represents cultural identifiers in a way that hasn’t been seen before.”
Deutsch, who was raised in Orange County, is one of the pilot members in Los Angeles of the Six Points Fellowship, an initiative to support Jewish artists funded by Jewish Federations of Greater Los Angeles, The Jewish Community Foundation and the Righteous Persons Foundation.
“In Los Angeles, there is an explosion of Jewish arts and culture, reflected in many of these new projects exploring both the seder and Passover,” said Josh Feldman, associatedirector of the Six Points Fellowship. “Bringing contemporary arts into this ancient tradition is also meeting young adults where they are with their Jewish practice.”
And relating to Judaism through art shouldn’t be mistaken for a sense of hipster aloofness, Levinson said.
“People want to explore themselves personally in the larger structure of Judaism, but it’s about reaching a sense of authenticity as opposed to some sort of air of coolness,” she said.
Especially because being a DIYer, it turns out, requires a fair amount of homework and a good dose of chutzpah, whether you’re 27 or 67.
“When I first started making my own haggadahs, I had this horrible feeling that I didn’t put in the thing where you dip the second time, and now I’m going to get in trouble because someone is going to say, ‘Where is the part where you dip a second time? You’re doing it wrong,’ ” Soloway of Eastside Jews said. “The fear of doing it wrong is one of the things that stops people from exploring Judaism. It keeps people from going to synagogue, from celebrating Shabbat.”
Soloway said she has worked for some years to experience that perfect seder where the pace is good and conversations are stimulating and the effect is uplifting — but she’s not quite there yet.
“I can’t say I’ve pulled that off. I have definitely gotten inspired, and gotten close to pulling it off, but I’ve never quite pulled it off,” she said.
For one thing, she has two children.
“A lot of people experience this choice. They want there to be meaningful adult dialogue about really deeply exploring the metaphor of freedom as they see it in their own lives, whether that is social justice or emotional freedom in their own heart or discussing addiction or other powerful themes around Passover. But you don’t want to do that in front of your kids, or with your 3-year-old who doesn’t really care,” Soloway said. “You have to walk that middle road, where it’s not going to be super meaningful, but it’s not going to be super boring.”
This year, Soloway is going to a friend’s house for first-night seder and is looking forward to the promise of creative activities and deep dialogue.
And on the second night, she’s going to her in-laws, who run a traditional seder.
“And, in some ways, that’s a relief, because there is something about the structure of childhood seders that I look back on and that in some ways still make sense all these years later,” she said.
“People read; they’re not being asked or forced to get into conversations about something personal or political, which can be dangerous with family. You’re just celebrating with family and you do it every year, and it’s more about continuity and doing what works. You don’t always need to reinvent.”