“Why is this night different from all other nights?” For starters, Dr. Ruth Westheimer sat at the table next to mine. And how about cross-dressing Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross, resplendent in a matzo-print dress? Not to mention Al Franken, via video, doing his best Paul Robeson on “Go Down, Moses.”
Michael Dorf’s fifth annual Downtown Seder, which gathered conspicuously Jewish musicians, comedians, and public figures, was not your forefathers’ ritual dinner. Then again, most Passover seders are part memorial to Jewish slaves in Egypt, part celebration of their liberation, and mostly musical theater, played out through familial dysfunction. So this event was traditional—the extended family being the hipper-than-thou Jewish arts community.
Producer Dorf, a wandering Jewish impresario since leaving active involvement in the Knitting Factory, welcomed folks into his latest Promised Land—a spacious mezzanine ballroom in the former Bank of New York building on Wall Street. (He plans to open a new venue, the Art Exchange, there in 2006.)
Tables were set up in neat rows, plates arrayed with bitter herbs, lamb shanks, and other customary edible signifiers. Events mostly adhered to the official Passover playbook, the Haggadah. The many shapes, sizes, and stylistic inclinations of Jewish talent seemed on display: a diasporan variety show. Galeet Dar-dashti’s candle-lighting blessing was full of Middle Eastern inflection. Debbie Friedman strummed through a folk-fest-styled sanctification. Margot Leverett led the Klezmer Mountain Boys in a bluegrass-tinged “Had Gadya.” Jewish plight was conflated with African American struggle, literally (Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields’s rendition of “All Freedom in Me”) and figuratively (Vanessa Hidary’s rant on Jewish identity, which sounded like a Def Poetry Jam audition). There were clever adaptations (Pharaoh’s Daughter telling the Passover story to the tune of “Bohemian Rhapsody”), touching moments (Neshama Carlebach’s soulful version of a song she learned from her father, a rabbi), and virtuosic displays (David Krakauer’s mealtime clarinet playing).
Mostly, arch comedy ruled. The duo What I Like About Jew whittled it all down to Cliffs Notes with their tune’s refrain: “They tried to kill us/We survived/Let’s eat.” For all its charm and high spirits, the night suggested an Eleventh Plague: sarcasm (served with full dinner).