Courtesy Michal Aharoni
Courtesy Michal Aharoni
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Rethinking the Seder Plate

Designers are putting modern spins on Judaica

by
Flora Tsapovsky
March 31, 2020
Courtesy Michal Aharoni
Courtesy Michal Aharoni

There’s one thing that no Passover Seder would be complete without: the Seder plate. It is the Seder’s centerpiece, holding the holiday’s symbolic foods. But often, on an aesthetic level, Seder plates are less than festive: old-fashioned, poorly designed, or even tacky. This ritual object, however, is undergoing a major makeover these days, in the hands of a new generation of makers. Taking the familiar shape—a round plate with small bowls on it—ceramicists and product designers are giving the Seder plate a modern spin.

“The Seder plate is one of these objects that never underwent a change,” said Michal Aharoni, the Israeli ceramicist behind Mickala Design. She holds a degree from the Jerusalem design school Bezalel, and had moved to Judaica and household objects gradually, after starting with large-format lighting fixtures. She decided to take on the Seder plate earlier this year, and the result is an elegant bamboo and porcelain vision, the wooden base minimal and reserved, and the white bowls featuring monochrome or colorful illustrations of the foods. These are more evocative of cool doodles on Instagram rather than the grapes-and-doves motifs of traditional Judaica. “I was really happy that I got to combine my passions for wood and ceramics,” Aharoni said. “After many trials and errors, I think I reached a result that will add lots of charm and interest to the Passover table.”

“Classic Judaica is much more decorative, embossed with images like Jerusalem, the Seven Species, ancient elements and more,” Aharoni said. “I want to design objects that correspond with the language of the whole home, instead of being estranged to it.”

Another Israeli brand, Studio Armadillo, has taken the Seder plate in new directions as well, along with the matzo cover and the matzo plate. Gone is the white-and-gold embroidery, gone is the generic square tray. Instead, Armadillo’s matzo cover is shibori-dyed; the matzo plate is a square, white ode to modernism; and the Seder plate is a puzzle of wood and ceramic bowls. The plate itself is modular and can be taken apart and used as pomegranate-shaped coasters; a lone Star of David coaster is situated in the middle. Another new version is a rotating, tambourine-inspired Seder plate, made of acrylic, glass, and brass. Behind Studio Armadillo are Hadas Kruk and Anat Stein, two friends who met during their studies at Israel’s Holon Institute of Technology. Their studio has been open for nearly 20 years, and the array of clever Passover plates has been recently expanding. “We decided to focus on Judaica after acknowledging that there’s a large audience, in the U.S. primarily, that aspires to include modern, current design in their modern Jewish lives,” the two said in an interview for the lifestyle website Portfolio in 2019. Even further, small brands like the Tel Aviv-based Nora Pottery Art and famous design authorities like Jonathan Adler have recently issued Passover plates that forgo illustrations altogether, only the shape, mindful of the symbolic foods, remains.

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The aspiration to bridge the gap between the evolving taste and aesthetic of Jews worldwide and the ritualistic tools that serve them goes beyond Passover. Tal and Roy Yahalomi, the couple behind Yahalomis, make a cool, modular version of Shabbat candlesticks back in Israel, using lava rocks and clay created from local basalt rocks, alongside slick, atypical hamsas and reserved ceramic mezuzah cases. “The world of design is changing, and there’s much more awareness of aesthetics and proper respect for design in all areas of life,” said Roy. “We look at traditional Judaica and try to make our products specific with the minimal amount of details, so they’re both classic and modern.”

When San Francisco-based Kristin Eriko Posner, the founder of Nourish Co., was looking for Judaica pieces to include in her wedding registry, she couldn’t find anything that matched the sensibilities of her home. The daughter of a Japanese American father and a Japanese mother, Posner married a Jewish man and converted to Judaism. “I wanted our ritual objects to be Jewish Japanese—everything was, on one hand, mass produced, or these beautiful pieces by artists that weren’t accessible to a young couple,” she said. Nourish Co. came shortly after, in late 2019; so far, the brand offers a challah cover, ritual cups, and a candle tray, all in small editions. The cups refer to the Japanese art of kintsugi (the repair of broken pottery with liquid gold), as each one is slightly chipped and adorned in white gold. The key is inclusive, multipurpose objects: “My challah cover has no Hebrew on it, for example,” Posner said. “I felt like a lot of my Jewish friends don’t speak or read Hebrew, and I didn’t want it to say ‘Shabbat Shalom,’ so you could also use it as a tea towel.”

Posner thought the main target audience for her new brand would be “people in a similar age range as me, people who are building a home for the first time,” but she said that many customers were older Jews, “matriarchs, who purchase gifts for their children—they, too, see the value in updating things. It’s really touching and encouraging.” Her intention, however, isn’t to reinvent ritual objects entirely. “There are many beautiful family heirlooms, passed in the family for generations,” she said. “It’s not about canceling, it’s about reinterpreting.”

Posner is surprised that many young couples are requesting a good-looking Havdalah set—probably the last ritualistic stone yet unturned. “This makes me think that people are craving ritual, and going back to practicing things that their families maybe even didn’t do,” she said. Judaism continuously rebrands itself, hand in hand with technology and food trends, and it’s only natural for elements of a home to follow suit. And as new generations of Jews rediscover tradition, they want Judaica to reflect their tastes, too.

Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.

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