WHEN Victoria Herrmann’s grandparents died in 2005, her
family’s Passover Seder tradition passed away with them. Her parents never had a
Seder. (And her siblings had converted to Christianity.)
"I love Seders,” Ms. Herrmann, 26, said. But last year, when Passover began
midweek, she and her boyfriend, who live in New York, couldn’t even go to his
family’s Seder because it was held in Maryland.
So she did what an increasing number of Jews are doing for Passover. She made a
reservation. She had a Seder at JoeDoe, in the East Village.
“The prayer books were on the table if you wanted them, the door was open for
Elijah, and when we came in for the Seder, Joe welcomed us,” she said of Joe
Dobias, the chef and an owner. “It was very comfortable, and it reminded me of
the Seders I went to when I was younger with my family.”
Ms. Herrmann, an adjuster at an auto-body shop and a musician, will be at JoeDoe
on Monday for the first night of Passover. “Some of my cousins are coming who
haven’t experienced a Seder since my grandparents passed,” she said. “This is
becoming our tradition.”
For years, families have been going on cruises or to hotels where the entire
facility is meticulously prepared for Passover and everything is 100 percent
kosher for the holiday. But increasingly, less traditional, more secular Jews
who want a festive family feeling are finding that a restaurant Seder fits the
“I think that this is a trend all over the country,” said Rabbi Joy Levitt,
executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. “Literally 10
minutes ago a J.C.C. nursery-school mom came into my office and was talking
about how much she enjoyed a restaurant Seder she goes to in Florida with a
klezmer band, and everyone gets up and dances.”
Over the past few years, the number of restaurants serving Passover meals has
risen to more than 50 nationwide. Bret Thorn, senior food editor of the Nation’s
Restaurant News, said that was partly because more Jewish chefs have been drawn
to the profession as it has become more prestigious. “At the same time,” he
said, “restaurants are doing anything to get people in — Groundhog Day, Earth
Day. And Passover.”
The experiences vary. Many are not kosher. Some have full-fledged Seders with
rabbis and cantors, as at Lumière in Newton, Mass., or at Spago, which has held
a Seder in Southern California since 1984. Peter Hoffman, at Savoy in SoHo, has
led a Sephardic Seder for 19 years, expanding a few years ago to two seatings.
Some restaurants’ Seders are held on the first, most important, night of
Passover. Most, however, like JoeDoe and Domenica in New Orleans, an Italian
restaurant with a Jewish chef, Alon Shaya, offer Passover-inspired menus for a
few days or the entire week and leave the ritual service up to the customers.
“We put out a Seder plate with horseradish, haroseth and the works on
each table and let customers do what they want,” said Tony Maws, the chef at
Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Mass.
After the death of his grandparents, no one in the family wanted to touch
Passover. Then a light went on for Mr. Maws, 41, whose picture of his
grandmother stands right above his work station. “I have a restaurant, I am
always cooking, why not have a Seder here?”
On the first night of Passover, as he has done for three years, he will serve
short ribs and flanken braised with prunes, almonds and star anise — a
Sephardic reinvention of his grandmother’s tsimmes and brisket — for 16
relatives in the restaurant, which is always closed on Mondays. On the second
and third nights, he’ll serve this and other dishes on his Passover menu.
Billy Rose, 59, has eaten at Craigie on Main the last three Passovers. “I used
to have family Seders at my parents’ house or at one of my siblings’,” he said,
“but after my parents passed away, with siblings all over the place, it is hard
to get together with 35-plus people.”
The logistics of Passover have become more difficult, Rabbi Levitt said, as
parents have become busier and people are cooking less. “People feel less able
to manage all the details, whether they are logistical or religious,” she said.
“It is a real challenge.”
Mr. Shaya, 32, said he wanted to respond to that need. “When I opened Domenica,”
he said, “I wanted to welcome people to my home, my restaurant, so I have a
Passover menu for the eight days of the holiday.
“I do this because it is good business but more than that, it means a lot to
me,” he added. “In New Orleans with a small Jewish population, there is a
cultural demand for Jewish food and a cultural lack of Judaism.”
After Robin Barnes moved to New Orleans in 2006, she and her friends started
having Seder at Domenica.
“We went the first time as a fun adventure to try the food,” Ms. Barnes, 50,
said, “and now we have made it our Passover tradition.”
This has grown into three nights of Passover menus with traditional melodies
played on an iPod, a hidden afikomen (a ritual matzo) with prizes,
Haggadot from Seders past, and the door opened for Elijah the prophet.
“I’m not Jewish, but everything for me is the holiday and memories,” said Mr.
Dobias, 32. “My idea is not to knock traditional foods, but some do go bland
over time. Believe me, I can’t compete with Jewish moms. I’ve spent my whole
life competing with my Italian mother.”
Mr. Dobias’s Passover menu this year will include a quirky Jewish-Italian
wedding soup with kale and tiny chicken dumplings and matzo balls, and
deep-fried matzo with a sprinkling of spices on top placed on a Seder plate with
chicken liver pâté, haroseth and horseradish. “Matzo doesn’t absorb a lot
of fat,” he said. “Frying just gives it an outside crisp texture.”
Ms. Herrmann approves: “I’ve eaten matzo my entire life and have never tasted it
so good as he prepares it.”
Mr. Shaya fiddles with old favorites, too, by substituting Moscato wine and
hazelnuts for Manischewitz wine and almonds in his mother’s Bulgarian
haroseth, which has a pleasant tang of onions and vinegar coupled with the
sweetness of figs, apples and dates.
But in making his own matzo out of normal bread flour, Mr. Shaya does not
observe the strict rules for Passover. “If I could get kosher for Passover
flour, I would use it,” he said. “But I make this matzo without leaven in my
wood-burning oven under the prescribed 18 minutes from start to finish.”
Such fiddling with tradition would shock many Jews, but others enjoy it.
“My favorite part of the meal was the homemade matzo and the haroseth,”
said Ms. Barnes, who called the meal surprising. “The menu had the Italian
influence but also a bit of New Orleans with the matzo beignets with lemon curd
and fresh mint.”
And when the Seders are all done?
“I know how much goes into preparing for a Seder and entertaining,” Ms. Herrmann
said. “It is too much responsibility for me at this point in my life. I am very
happy to go to a restaurant, enjoy the meal, live up to my family’s tradition
and not worry about cleaning after the meal is done.”
Joan Nathan is a correspondent for the New York Times. Her article first appeared April 11, 2011