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.