Bringing relevance to the Passover table

Richard "Pharaoh" Markowitz puts surprises in his seders. In 2011 he and his grandkids dressed up for the puppet show he now annually scripts and performs.
Richard "Pharaoh" Markowitz puts surprises in his seders. In 2011 he and his grandkids dressed up for the puppet show he now annually scripts and performs.

How are these seders different from all others?

Posted: April 10, 2014

If you're the kind of person who likes to cozy up to the sedate, traditional Passover seders led by the family patriarch, a recent evening at the Gershman Y in Philadelphia might have thrown you for a loop.

Tap dancer Germaine Ingram was executing a soulful routine as violinist Diane Monroe accompanied her, expressing the doubt and hope of American slaves upon learning that slavery was abolished.

Not a Jewish reference specifically, but surely one to which Jewish history could relate.

This was, after all, "Seder the Musical," a ritual meal commemorating the liberation of the Jews from Egyptian bondage - but with a flute performance, the music of the Off-Broadway musical comedy Altar Boyz, and storytelling by the celebrated Charlotte Blake Alston, themed to the universal quest for freedom.

"We're seeing a new hunger for innovative approaches to an ancient celebration," said Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Anne Lazarus, cochair with Jeremy Wintroub of the Y's board. "Our hope is that our seder will encourage people to think outside the box. Judaism has been evolving for 2,000 years, and so can our seders."

Passover seders rely on the Haggadah to give order to the meal, with variations on the four questions, the four sons, the explanation of the seder plate, the recitation of the plagues, and the story of the Exodus. Lately, though, people are rethinking how to create their own seder spin, making the observance more relevant for modern-day families - and, if by chance, more fun, then all the better.

A desert view

Their own childhood seders, while sweet with family memories, were somewhat tedious, acknowledge Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Jeff Pasek. So the Ardmore couple and their three sons decided to shake things up a bit.

A family steeped in political awareness, its members began more than two decades ago introducing contemporary issues into their seders, exploring how Jewish thought, culture, and tradition could speak to current events.

"Then we went beyond that and each year focused on a single issue, like economic and gender inequality, hunger and immigration," explains Pasek, an attorney with Cozen O'Connor.

Eventually the setting evolved, too. About 15 years ago, the family acquired a parachute, draped it with sheets to create the illusion of a tent, and scattered pillows on the living room floor so guests could lean or recline, a Haggadah prompt.

"Then we began having our guests dress as if for the desert," says Hirsh-Pasek, a Temple University professor of psychology.

A high point of the seder is the election of an annual Pharaoh/bad guy and Moses/good guy, based on world events. It can get rather contentious, Pasek says.

"We take nominations from the floor, and since we often have about 40 opinionated guests, that can lead to big discussions about what it really means to be a Moses or Pharaoh."

Candidates for this year, the host couple predict, will probably include Vladimir Putin for the Pharaoh slot and the late Nelson Mandela for Moses.

"We never know until the vote is taken," says Hirsh-Pasek, "but things are never dull."

Let me entertain you

When Richard Markowitz, a pediatric radiologist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, was growing up, traditional seders were led by his grandfather and conducted in Hebrew. After his grandfather died, various relatives took over, but there was not much innovation.

"It was when our kids started at a Hebrew day school that we began to look a little more deeply into the seder, and to think of having more creativity," he recalls.

And that's when the Markowitz seder went to the next level - and then way beyond.

"One year, for reasons that are still unclear, I decided to surprise everyone and dress up like Moses in a big bathrobe with a towel wrapped around my head," Markowitz says. "The kids loved it and so did my wife."

Then the challenge became thinking of other surprises to enliven the ritual. So his son and daughter would collaborate with him on costume themes, leaving his wife, Luci, to be shocked, along with assorted guests.

At their Wynnewood home, the Markowitzes have celebrated a colonial Passover with Ben Franklin - also known as Markowitz - and also Abraham Lincoln, who delivered an address that began "Four score and seven pyramids ago . . . . "

There have been western-themed Passovers, Statue of Liberty seders, and, yes, an Elvis seder featuring "You Ain't Nothing But a Pharaoh." (There are always musical parodies to fit the theme.)

The family, which now includes five grandchildren, has come to love the surprise element, the witty musical scores Markowitz creates, and now the annual shows he scripts and performs with hand puppets.

Every year has the unexpected twist, but one thing remains the same: "None of us ever forgets the real meaning of Passover, and the theme of freedom," Markowitz says.

It's a female thing

Gail Tishman of Marlton has no idea what her grandfathers would make of her seder, but she is pretty certain her late grandmothers would be jubilant.

Tishman, one of the only 27 Jewish priestesses called Kohenet in the United States, has been trained to officiate at weddings, funerals, baby namings, and other life-cycle events, with the commitment to celebrate and honor the feminine side of Judaism.

So it's no surprise that her own April 14 seder, to be attended by a dozen friends, male and female, won't resemble those grandfather-led rituals of old. The Haggadah she will use, created by a fellow Kohenet, tells the stories of Jewish women in history "and refers to a 'she-God,' not a 'he-God' throughout."

Tishman also will take her guests through a guided visualization, leading them back to the desert before the Exodus. She will have her guests engage the senses, from "feeling" the heat to "hearing" the yells of children to "seeing" the chaos of displacement and the frantic rush of the Israelites to leave everything they knew.

It's not the seders she knew as a child. But it's powerful and meaningful to Tishman.

"I want to do this so that we all truly get a sense of the urgency, the noise, the fear," Tishman explains. " . . . It's more vibrant than just reading about it."

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