The Arty Semite

The Hippest Seder on Earth

By Aidan Levy

  • Print
  • Share Share

Lou Reed is standing in front of a room full of Jews on Varick Street on a night that is unquestionably different from all other nights. “Exodus, movement of Jah people. Send us another brother Moses from across the Red Sea,” Reed intones with the cryptic, stentorian sermonizing of a downtown, denim-clad rocker-turned-street rabbi. The text, culled from Bob Marley’s “Exodus,” is a politically charged retelling of the biblical tale — Reed’s assigned passage for the star-studded March 19 Downtown Seder at City Winery — and his interpretation is anything but orthodox. “Move, move, move, move, move, move!” he rasps with a risible if unleavened air from the de facto bimah. “Park… or move.”

©2013 Lloyd Wolf /

Now 71, the former Velvet Underground frontman and downtown prophet held the bibulous congregation, perhaps slightly hipper than the typical minyan, in rapt if compromised attention to receive the hard-earned wisdom of the “wise child” between their second and third glasses of wine. Or fourth or fifth, but at this Seder, who’s counting?

“Feel free to drink in any order,” City Winery impresario Michael Dorf stipulated before the first glass was tipped. “You are leaning as free men and women, leaning neither to the left nor to the right.”

At a Seder that was more deconstructionist than Reconstructionist, the other three children all betrayed a youthful innocence that mined the Haggadah for its symbolic depth. Performance artist Laurie Anderson, Reed’s wife, as the simple child, recited “The Dream Before,” a contemplation of the meaning of history. Rockapella founder Sean Altman, the rebellious child, performed a whimsically irreverent papal tribute penned by fictional Pope Antisemiticus titled “Blame the Jews,” as well as “My Phantom Foreskin,” a circumcision ballad. Cast against type as child who does not know how to ask, Philip Glass opted out of the interrogative mode in typical Zen fashion by tickling the ivories with his “Etude No. 10.” There are few reasons most Jews would consume the bread of affliction earlier than absolutely necessary; this was one of them.

In lieu of the typical four questions, the Downtown Seder Haggadah expands on socially conscious quandaries that have not yet been answered. Leading figures from the public and non-profit sectors addressed modern plagues — gun violence, the modern slavery of human trafficking, climate change and global poverty — in an attempt to part a deadlier kind of Red Sea. Among them were Julie Menin, a candidate for Manhattan borough president, Maurice Middleberg, executive director of Free the Slaves, and Dan Gross, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

On the cantorial side, avant-garde trumpeter Frank London growled a New Orleans front-line style “Go Down Moses”; Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza performed “Things Will Be Better,” the first song he ever composed, and a gathering of Shlomo Carlebach acolytes interpreted the catalogue of the “singing rabbi” with Neshama Carlebach, his daughter, Jewish gospel singer Josh Nelson, guitarist Jon Madof, and a representative sampling of other intrepid jazz daveners.

Despite a dearth of hametz, laughs were not in short supply. Comedian Mark Normand held forth on the anxiety of being a gentile performer at a Jewish event; stand-up comic and author Joel Chasnoff extolled the virtues of kosher for Passover candy, the dog-hair-covered afikomen hidden underneath the couch, and life in the Israeli army; comedienne Judy Gold performed a modified “Dayenu,” enumerating Lance Armstrong’s more than sufficient misdeeds.

For humor more conducive to reclining, screenings included Internet video star Michelle Citrin’s ode to the many uses of leftover matzah, a comic trio from the off-Broadway show “Old Jews Telling Jokes” (“A guy hands a piece of matzah to a blind man. The man says, ‘Who wrote this crap?’”), and a reading by essayist and author Rachel Shukert detailing the fictitious tongue-in-cheek tale of the legal defamation battle that created the Hillel sandwich.

The night ended, belt buckles a little tighter from a festive meal of matzo ball soup, eggplant lasagna, and red bliss potatoes, with the obligatory macaroon dessert. Then, as though possessed by the spirit of Elijah himself, liturgical folk singer-songwriter Jeremiah Lockwood sang a fiery rendering of “Eliyahu Hanavi,” leading the crowd back into the urban desert.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Seder, Philip Glass, Passover, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Downtown Seder, City Winery, Aidan Levy

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.