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Artists and Entertainers Reimagine the Seder

City Winery’s popular annual Downtown Seder heads to the West Coast

Stephanie Butnick
March 31, 2014
Napa Valley Opera House, the site of City Winery's third outpost. (Napa Wine Tours)
Napa Valley Opera House, the site of City Winery's third outpost. (Napa Wine Tours)

When Michael Dorf was growing up, his favorite part of the Passover seder was the way his father incorporated current events into the story of Exodus, making the biblical narrative accessible, and relevant, for the kids. “It was a stimulating opportunity to think about Passover in that more expansive light,” Dorf, the New York-based entrepreneur behind City Winery, told me.

It’s no surprise then, that the Downtown Seder he started 15 years ago at the Knitting Factory, his original event space, invited musicians, artists, and entertainers to reimagine the different parts of the seder.

“In the beginning of Haggadah, it says you should read the story of Exodus in the language that you understand,” Dorf explained. “For me, I took that interpretation and said that the language 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.”

The seders, which typically take place a week or so before the actual seder—”This wasn’t really a substitute for someone’s home seder, but rather a supplement,” Dorf realized early on—are broken down into their various components, with a different person tasked with interpreting, and leading, that section. The late musician Debbie Friedman, for example, led the portion about Miriam’s Cup, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer has offered relationship advice based on the Hillel sandwich. Lou Reed had, for the past few years, performed the role of the Wise Son, and this year a guitar tribute will be performed in his memory.

Since this is City Winery we’re talking about, the wine is in abundance, often beyond the traditional four cups. Different seders take place at the New York and Chicago locations, with local musicians and artists supplemented by what Dorf calls the City Winery seder tour—headliners who perform at both locations. This year they’ll be led by Israeli musician David Broza, singer-songwriter Keren Ann, and comedian Joel Chasnoff. The New York seder will feature Dr. Ruth, actress Jackie Hoffman, and instrumentalist Basya Schecter in various storytelling roles.

But while the Downtown Seder has very much become a New York and Chicago tradition, this year the party is heading west, too. The seder will be one of the first events hosted by the third City Winery location, the Napa Valley Opera House, and will take place at the San Francisco JCC days before the new location is set to open. Dorf is hoping to have local kosher vintners at the seder, serving their wine and discussing their products.

So what’s Dorf’s favorite part of his seder? “I’m always looking forward to the end,” he laughed. “I like nothing more than saying ‘next year at City Winery somewhere new.’”

This year’s Downtown Seders take place on April 7 in New York, April 8 in Chicago, and April 9 in San Francisco. You can buy tickets here.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.