Issue: 12.04 4/18/2011
by: Joan Nathan
Seder for Two, Please

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 bill.

“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
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