Tonight is the first night of Passover, the holiday that recounts the Jewish people's exodus from slavery in Egypt. Passover has always been one of my favorite holidays because the rituals take place around the dining room table, rather than in a synagogue.
I kicked off this year's celebration a week early by attending the Downtown Seder, an event hosted by City Winery. City Winery has locations in Atlanta, Chicago, Nashville and New York and will be opening in Boston later this year (they are targeting August 2017).
The Downtown Seder is the brain child of Michael Dorf. Dorf founded the independent music venue the Knitting Factory in New York in 1986 (he was just 23 at the time). After 16 years with the Knitting Factory, he left to pursue a new adventure. In 2008 he opened City Winery in New York. According to his biography on the website, "Dorf had conceptualized a venue that brought his love for both the making and enjoyment of wine under one roof and created City Winery – Manhattan’s first fully-functional winery, restaurant, music venue and private event space." Four years later, City Winery expanded to Chicago. Since then, this successful model has put down roots (and vines) in Atlanta and Nashville. Thankfully, Boston is next!
Dorf hosted the first Downtown Seder 17 years ago in New York. Eventually he began hosting it in Chicago as well and this year, for the first time, he added an evening in Boston. The event took place at Laugh Boston, while the City Winery space is still under construction. When they do open this summer, they will be at 1 Canal Street.
During the Downtown Seder, rather than have the traditional reading of the Passover Haggadah, Dorf assigns each section to a special guest to interpret. Performers include singers, actors, comedians, spoken word artists, political activists, Jewish community leaders and more.
Dorf and his team create a Downtown Seder Haggadah just for this occasion.
He writes an introduction each year and this year's note ended with, "May our Seder inspire you this year to help provide sanctuary and unity to our fellow humans on this small planet. May our gathering around this table, breaking bread (matzah) and drinking a lot of wine, inspire us to fight all forms of oppression in the coming year."
The room at Laugh Boston was filled with long, communal tables, meant to mimic the dining room tables families sit around each year. There were bountiful Seder plates at the center of each table.
It is customary to drink four glasses of wine throughout the Seder, so City Winery ensured the vino was abundant.
We certainly had our four cups (and maybe even a few drops more).
There was also four-course meal, entirely vegetarian. We began with a delicious, veggie-packed salad, followed by a quinoa salad and then a tasty veggie cake (picture a fish patty, but made from vegetables). For dessert, cans of chocolate macaroons, just like the ones on the kitchen counter your whole life.
There were 19 performers who took the stage during the Boston Downtown Seder. Here are some details on my favorites of the night:
- David Broza - David Broza is an Israeli musician. I grew up singing his songs at summer camp and have been lucky enough to see him perform live a few times. I must admit, his appearance was the initial reason I decided to attend the Downtown Seder. After some opening remarks from Michael Dorf, Broza began the Seder with a rendition of "Eliyahu Hanavi." He also gifted us a performance of his song "East Jerusalem / West Jerusalem" from his music project for peace. If we're friends on Facebook then you already saw that I was able to meet Broza at the close of the evening and he was kind enough to take a photo with us. I was smiling so wide I thought my face was going to break!
- Joel Chasnoff - Have you ever heard a stand-up comedy routine about life in Jewish Day School? Well, Joel Chasnoff is the master. At the Downtown Seder, he had the crowd roaring with laughter describing his years selling Passover candy to raise money for his school.
- Boston Community Choir - The Boston Community Choir is an all-volunteer, multicultural, intergenerational, multi-denominational group of singers. They took the stage at the Downtown Seder to perform "Wade in the Water." I felt like I was at gospel brunch in Harlem. It was amazing.
- Ezekiel's Wheels Klezmer Band - When I think of Klezmer music, I think of musicians my parents and grandparents age. Ezekiel's Wheels Klezmer Band is made up of musicians that are my age! I was shocked. Their performance was fast paced and electric.
- Cantor Elias Rosemberg - I grew up attending services and Hebrew school at Temple Emanuel in Newton. Cantor Elias Rosemberg is the current cantor at that temple (he joined in 2007) and has built a loyal following within the congregation who cherish his passion and musical talent. He sang, accompanied by a member of the congregation on the piano.
This incredible lineup had me smiling, laughing and clapping the whole night. Before we even left, I turned to my friend and asked, "Should we make this an annual tradition?" With zero hesitation, she replied, "Definitely!"
The Downtown Seder was an unforgettable evening. It made me exponentially more excited for City Winery's opening in Boston. What struck me most about Michael Dorf and his team is their commitment to not only making great wine and bringing people together, but giving the community a place to express itself.