One of Michael Dorf’s favorite Passover memories is of his father integrating current events into the family seder. Dorf, a New York City-based entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of City Winery, recently told JewishBoston, “My dad tied civil rights into his interpretation of the Haggadah to make the Passover story relevant for us kids.” Dorf’s childhood Passovers have been fondly contextualized in the annual Passover seder that he hosts through City Winery, an arts-and-culture event space where the wine flows freely.
This year the City Winery seder makes its Boston debut at Laugh Boston on Sunday, April 2. Dorf says the Passover seder is a great way to introduce City Winery to the city. Plans are in place to open a City Winery in Boston this summer. “I’m excited to turn a 350-seat state-of-the-art venue into a place that will support Jewish culture in Boston,” he said.
To that end, Dorf has partnered with the Jewish Arts Collaborative for this year’s Boston seder, which features the participation of musicians and writers. Among the contributors are Israeli singer David Broza and comedian Judy Gold. Local luminaries include Cantor Elias Rosemberg of Temple Emanuel in Newton, Hankus Netsky, founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, and writer Rachel Kadish.
- 4/2/2017, 7:00 pm
“This is not your bubbie and zayde’s seder,” Dorf said. “It’s a modern, interpretative event that ties into Passover in a way that gives the holiday depth and meaning.” The seder also includes a full meal, during which Dorf encourages noshing. “It’s hard to put on a show for 300 hungry Jews,” he quipped.
Dorf has always seen the seder as a special opportunity to mix joy and spirituality with humor, music and the arts. The City Winery seder started 25 years ago as the “Downtown Seder” in the Knitting Factory’s original location in lower Manhattan. Those early seders featured Jewish writers and musicians who regularly performed at the Knitting Factory. They included the late Lou Reed, Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg.
From the beginning, Dorf has assigned participants various parts of the Haggadah to interpret and reimagine. Lou Reed has been the wise child and the wicked child. Philip Glass has played his minimalist music to accompany his role as the simple child. The late Debbie Friedman wrote original music to lead the part about Miriam’s cup. In more recent seders, Dr. Ruth Westheimer found provocative imagery in the Hillel sandwich.
Dorf said the beginning lines of the Haggadah initially inspired him to interpret the Passover story through the prism of arts and culture. “The Haggadah asks us to tell the story of leaving Egypt in a language that we understand,” he said. “For me, the language that I understand as a cultural Jew—someone who isn’t a pure traditionalist, but loves the history and the culture—is the language of art. A lot of us understand the arts as a way to express the story of our leaving Egypt. The arts are not only stimulating, but they also help to make the Passover story relevant.”
For the Boston seder, Rosemberg will sing one of the blessings over the four cups of wine. He sees his part as a “one-of-a-kind” experience. “I normally lead seders in synagogues, but the idea of doing it together with so many artists with different backgrounds is really unique,” he said. “I very much look forward to this amazing opportunity.”
Kadish’s storytelling role will feature Miriam’s cup. “While I’m not religious, I think traditions can catapult us out of our own times and offer a broader, clearer perspective—something that’s sorely needed these days,” she said. “I didn’t grow up with the idea of Miriam’s cup, but I love the idea of celebrating what sustains us when the road ahead feels daunting and endless.”
David Broza will perform the opening blessing for peace and Judy Gold will bring her humorous interpretation of Jewish mothers to Dayeinu. Comedian Lewis Black will be on hand to offer his take on the Ten Plagues.
As for Dorf’s favorite part of the seder? “It’s the four cups of wine,” he said with a laugh. “After all, I’m the City Winery guy. But in all seriousness, I enjoy the wine component. It adds another whole character to the meal and lubricates conversation that might not have happened if people weren’t drinking. And in the end, it’s a commandment to drink at least four cups of wine during the seder. I think drinking that much wine is a way to talk more openly about heavy issues that wouldn’t come up around a dinner table. Wine offers people a way to open up.”
Find information and tickets to the City Winery seder here.