What ‘Saturday Night Seder’ Tells Us About American Jewry in the Coronavirus Age

Created by ‘anxious Jews’ stuck inside their homes, this weekend’s highly entertaining virtual benefit served as a mirror to the community during a Passover holiday like no other

Allison Kaplan Sommer
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A screenshot of Jason Alexander in "Saturday Night Seder"
A screenshot of Jason Alexander in "Saturday Night Seder."Credit: Screenshot from YouTube
Allison Kaplan Sommer

The fact that “Saturday Night Seder” was sharp, funny, high-quality entertainment was probably the least surprising thing about it. 

After all, with Broadway theaters and comedy clubs shuttered, and stars of television and movies confined to their homes, the amount of creative energy funneled into the benefit by its creators – self-described “anxious Jews stuck inside our homes” – practically burst through the screens on which it streamed Saturday night. (The event is now available on YouTube.) 

From the stunning musical numbers performed by Tony-winning singers Ben Platt, Idina Menzel, Cynthia Erivo and Shoshana Bean to the comedic schtick of Debra Messing, Ilana Glazer, Richard Kind, Billy Eichner, Fran Drescher and Henry Winkler, with a star turn by Bette Midler as Elijah the prophet, the show would have been an impressive production, period – even if it hadn’t been staged in private homes, in record time, in the middle of a pandemic.    

But along with the laughter and music, and its goal of raising money for the CDC Foundation’s Coronavirus Emergency Response Fund, the event also served as a mirror, offering a look into the minds and souls of much of American Jewry on this particular Passover. What does it tell us about the state of the community?

1. They’re proud Jews

While Hollywood has always been Jewish historically, it also had a tradition of changing names and downplaying ethnic origins. There was definitely a shift, beginning in the 1960s and ’70s with Dustin Hoffman and Steven Spielberg, through to the “Seinfeld” and Larry David era, but still it lingered. It evolved when anti-Semitism made a visible comeback: After the white supremacists’ “Jews Will Not Replace Us” chant at Charlottesville in August 2017, increasing numbers of creators and performers responded by not only refusing to hide their Jewishness, but wearing it on their sleeve.

“Saturday Night Seder” featured many of those in the vanguard of that trend: From Josh Malina (who won the award for best rhyme of the night by asking viewers to “Give some tzedakah, motherfucka!”) to Mayim Bialik, to Jason Alexander, who served as seder host.

The love story between the Jewish-American immigrant experience and show business was spotlighted by Platt’s goose bumps-inducing rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” performed as actress Judith Light told the story of the Jews who wrote the song from “The Wizard of Oz,” Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.

2. They’re maximally inclusive 

It was hardly a coincidence that, as Alexander opened the show, his first three guests were non-Jews: Darren Criss from “Glee”; Josh Groban – who looks like he could be Jewish and, thanks to his high school performance as Tevye, can warble like a cantor; and Rachel Brosnahan, aka Mrs. Maisel, the undisputed queen of “I’m not a Jew but I play one on TV.” Alexander pointed out how the Passover story is “more timely and important than ever” in that “it celebrates tenacity and resilience in times of adversity.”

Josh Groban (top left), Jason Alexander, Rachel Brosnahan and Darren Criss in "Saturday Night Seder."
Josh Groban (top left), Jason Alexander, Rachel Brosnahan and Darren Criss in "Saturday Night Seder."Credit: Screenshot from YouTube

The connection of the African-American slave experience to the Exodus story was embodied by Billy Porter’s performance of “Go Down Moses,” likewise Erivo performing “When You Believe” from “The Prince of Egypt” in a duet with Bean, accompanied by composer Stephen Schwartz. 

3. They’re self-deprecating  

The show features nose job jokes, Sarah Silverman finding the afikoman wedged in a body part, wide dissing of gefilte fish, and other food and wine-related put-downs: Actress Pamela Adlon noted that “there is no worse food less worth waiting for than the food at a seder,” while writer-performer Eliot Glazer fake-tasted his Manischewitz, detecting “oaky notes of Hawaiian Punch.”

Recollections of seders past in the segment “Passover Memories” recalled rivalry, guilt, complaining and boredom as part of the charm of being part of a Jewish family, with comedian Judy Gold recalling her mother’s annual meltdown: “This is the last year I’m doing this! Every Goddamn year I work so hard and no one appreciates it! Do you understand? I’m done! So enjoy the seder this year because it’s the last time I will work like this with no one giving a shit!” And then the guests arrived.  

4. They have spiritual leaders with uplifting messages

The production shined a spotlight on celebrity rabbis, including Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of New York’s Lab/Shul and Seattle’s Rabbi Dana Benson, with Orthodox representation from Chabad Twitter star Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, all of whom offered up their own takes on the Passover story. The most screen time went to two high-profile “rabbis to the stars” in the Los Angeles community, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple and Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR.

Brous’ uplifting short sermon tied Passover to COVID-19, noting that the tale shared at the seder is “a story that’s held a grip on the human imagination for thousands of years, precisely because it was never just about what happened then, but has also always been about what is happening now.” Now more than ever, she said, the world needs to be reminded of how those who are “degraded and oppressed and enslaved” have previously walked “on that long journey toward freedom.”

“Our rabbis understood that that was a message we needed to hear not only once,” she explained, saying that Jews – and all people – “have the muscle memory for hope exactly in moments like the ones we are living in right now when we need hope the most.”

Passover’s story of liberation teaches that “we will survive this, our story doesn’t end here,” she added, and that like our forefathers “we will one day come to the other side of this plague of darkness” – a time when “we will grieve and then we will rebuild.” 

5. What they really mean by ‘Next Year in Jerusalem!’

True to the historic preference of most American Jews for the universalist side of the religion, any non-humorous discussion of Jewish particularism is absent from “Saturday Night Seder.” Perhaps this is understandable for entertainment aimed at a wide, not-just-Jews audience, but it is notable nonetheless. The story of moving from slavery to freedom is something they can relate to. The story of moving from exile to a homeland not so much.

The fact that the Promised Land is purely metaphorical for American Jews was hammered home in a comic but pointed monologue in which actor-playwright Harvey Fierstein recalled his younger self resenting the fact that the seder closes with the hopeful cry “Next year in Jerusalem!” 

“Why would anyone want to go to Jerusalem? It’s hot, you’re surrounded by a vast majority of anti-Semites, and all the cute soldiers in uniform are girls,” Fierstein asked in his trademark, flamboyantly gay rasp.

“It made no sense to me that Jews would want to go to Israel. I know it has sand and you can pick up a quick mah-jongg game – but Miami, it ain’t. Still, after everything Jews went through in the Holocaust, when asked where they wanted to make their homeland, they picked Jerusalem. You want proof that it’s a bad idea? Jared Kushner thinks it’s a good idea. I rest my case.”

A better idea, in his view: The Jews should have said “fuck you to the Germans and taken Berlin,” which has “beautiful architecture, museums, centrally located to all the other wonderful European cities. What’s Jerusalem near? The Dead Sea? That’s like people spending their life savings to go to Las Vegas and staying at the Luxor Hotel. ‘Gee honey, where should we go on vacation? I know – let’s go stay in a big black tomb!’”

But now that he’s older and wiser, Fierstein related, he has made peace with the phrase, as he realizes it’s just fine that “Next Year in Jerusalem!” means “nothing” to him on a literal level. Now, he interprets it as meaning “next year we will be in our home, and that home will be a world without fear, a world without hunger, a world without poverty … that is caring and supportive of its inhabitants, and a world where its inhabitants are caring and supportive of the world in which they live.”

Fierstein’s epiphany was amplified as the seder closed with a montage of brave – and Jewish – health care workers who are spending this Passover fighting the coronavirus, expressing their hopes for a more joyous holiday next year spent with their families close at hand, not at a social distance. Alexander then concluded with the exhortation: “Stay safe, stay healthy, stay inside. Next year in Jerusalem.”

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