I’ll confess: I get a little giddy when Jewish celebrities acknowledge, never mind celebrate, their Jewishness. Over the years, I’ve spilled more ink over the B-list star or ho-hum athlete who drops a Yiddish word than, say, the day school teacher who has dedicated her life to Limmudei Kodesh. I’m not proud.
But my enjoyment of last week’s “Saturday Night Seder” was more than mere stargazing. Somehow, this low-tech, high-energy hour managed to be both perfectly silly and often profoundly moving, while capturing our terrifying global reality. And at a time when we were all forced to host attenuated seders, it amplified Passover and its themes — of hope, of family, of tradition — in cheerful defiance of the coronavirus.
Jason Alexander hosted the show, which included songs, readings and shtick by a crowd of Jewish and non-Jewish celebrities. The evening was structured according to the order (that’s what “seder” means) of the Haggadah, starting with the first cup of wine and proceeding, with some notable omissions, to opening the door for Elijah (in this case, Bette Midler).
Fran Drescher washed her hands (“Urchatz,” according to the Haggadah) while singing the theme song from “The Nanny.” Richard Kind and Debra Messing told the Exodus story in a way that started out shmaltzy but ended up being quite moving. Henry Winkler took a serious turn, reading the Moses story from a reverent children’s book, punctuated by a tear-the-house-down rendition of the spiritual “Go Down Moses” by the African-American actor and fashion icon Billy Porter. That might have been the musical highlight, although there was stiff competition from Idina Menzel (The Four Questions), Ben Platt (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) and the Broadway stars Cynthia Erivo and Shoshana Bean, who sang “When You Believe” while accompanied by its composer, Stephen Schwartz.
They skipped “The Four Children” but there were the kinds of gags you’d hear from The Wicked Children (Sarah Silverman, Billy Eichner) and some powerful Torah from an array of Wise Children, including Rabbis David Wolpe, Sharon Brous, Amichai Lau-Lavie, Dana Benson and Mordechai Lightstone, and former White House speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz.
The non-Jewish stars added a lot, especially Darren Criss, Rachel Brosnahan and Josh Groban, playing the guests who know more about the Passover traditions than their Jewish hosts. I was somehow reminded of the short UJA fundraising films made in Hollywood in the late ’40s and early ’50s, when Charlton Heston, Agnes Moorehead and Raymond Burr joined Edward G. Robinson in raising money for Israel and Jewish refugees. (“Saturday Night Seder” was a fundraiser for the CDC Foundation; you can imagine all the Jewish nonprofits gnashing their teeth with envy.)
The writers and performers did a fine job with the holiday’s main themes and how they relate to the fears and uncertainty of these strange and unprecedented times. Rabbi Brous, especially, had a lovely drash on the “Genetic Transmission of Hope,” saying Passover is meant to be a journey from “grief to celebration, from narrowness to great expansiveness, from degradation to dignity.”
But the event also embodied Passover, perhaps the most widely celebrated of all Jewish rituals, as an experience. Reverence and sarcasm. Serious songs and silly parodies. Snarky remarks from lapsed Jews and unexpected insights from Christian guests. The whole thing reminded me of, well, the seders I try to run and some of the best seders I have ever intended.
A lot of us are products of the “Do-It-Yourself” era of Jewish renewal, which was simultaneously a return to Jewish tradition and a determination to do it on our own terms. Passover, based in the home, is deeply DIY. We pick the Haggadah, set the table and urge the guests to go “off script” and ask questions, pose challenges and tell the Passover story in a way that, quite honestly, the traditional Haggadah never quite gets around to.
It’s risky. Traditionalists might be offended, the “nones” might be bored. But get it right, and the seder can be a model of an ideal, pluralistic Jewish community in which all the children have something to share. That’s what the “Saturday Night Seder” felt like: a kind of Jewish ingathering seldom seen in normal times.
I suspect the “Saturday Night Seder” was a one-off, made possible only by a bizarre universal lockdown that made it impossible to retreat into our separate institutions and buildings, and a technology that allows us to leave our comfort zones while not budging from our actual homes. I also suspect that synagogues and Jewish institutions around the country are feeling the same thing: a gratifying coming together in virtual space that may not last once we are able to be together again physically.
But we can dream. The celebrity seder ended with playwright Harvey Fierstein offering a blessing for “next year,” when we will “remember the lessons of kindness” and “aspire to live our possibilities.” Next year, he said, “we will be grateful for the gift of life we’ve been given. Next year, we will achieve our goals and share our bounty with family, friends and neighbors. Next year the word ‘stranger’ will be meaningless, because next year, we will all be together in our home.”
To which I’d add, “Next year, we will cherish community in a new way, because we saw how much we needed it, and, in the midst of crisis, we saw how little our differences really mattered.”