The Human Spirit: 'Passover-style' in Philadelphia

The reality is that most Jews don't keep kosher any night of the year, so why should this night be different?

seder plate 88 (photo credit: )
seder plate 88
(photo credit: )
The Pessah advertisements plumped the Jewish newspapers at my friend's home in Philadelphia. I was impressed. Not only were supermarkets touting their matzo products and horseradish, not only were places with names like Itsik's Glatt Kosher and Klapholyz offering gefilte fish and brisket, but the entire culinary community seemed to be celebrating the Festival of Our Freedom. You could "experience the distinct flavors of Italian Jewish history," with Chef Lo at Villa Barola, or have a Greek dinner at Zesty's. The Harvest Diner was taking reservations "for first and second night," and Omni Hotel was asking "Why is this night different?" It was a regular Passover Revolution! My Philadelphia friend, herself scouring counters and carrying up giant platters from the basement, translated the vernacular for this na ve Israeli visitor: Except for those that listed kashrut supervision, the advertisements, were for "Passover-style dinners," but weren't kosher. Fascinated, I phoned the Fork, a fancy bistro, and learned a term I liked better. The restaurant where Chef Thien Ngo provides "a traditionally prepared Seder meal featuring brisket, gefilte fish and handmade matzo from its own bakery." The spokesperson made it clear that they never pretended to be kosher; they served "Passover-friendly cuisine." Poking around the Internet, I learned that this phenomenon wasn't unique to Philadelphia. Last April, USA Today featured a listing of "ten great places for a traditional, or trendy Seder," with recommendations for non-kosher restaurants that serve Passover specialties. Typical was Galileo, in the US capital where the chef "makes everything himself including his own bread and matzo. He also cures his own ham and prosciutto. Menu items include fried gefilte fish with a green sauce, roasted baby lamb with potatoes, and a flourless chocolate cake." In Israel, we too have many Pessah offerings in the newspaper, but the declarations of kashrut are such that that old joke of a person so stringent that he won't eat in his own house doesn't seem funny anymore. These include a wide range of hotels in North and South America and Europe where there are numerous Pessah options, too. NOT THAT I imagine everyone who made Seder, in Israel or the Diaspora, followed the dietary laws, but the unabashed manner of publicly offering non-kosher Sedarim surprised me. Obviously there's a ready market. In Fork, for example, at least one family of 16 is coming back for a second year. The question this begs is whether the variety of Passover dinners - including so many non-kosher options - is good for the Jews. One side might fulminate that Pessah is the least flexible of holidays - where rulings by the stern House of Shamai prevailed over the House of Hillel. Of course, for most Jews making Seder at a non-kosher restaurant, Hillel and Shamai might not be daily terms of reference. Still, we could argue that the Biblical commandment to cast out bread products is a necessary element of the celebration, and that even the slightest hametz renders even kosher food unacceptable. Some might feel that making a Passover-like meal in a non-kosher restaurant is a mockery of tradition, which diminishes the holiday and dilutes any importance for Jewish continuity. On the other hand, you could claim that eating matzo and telling the story of the Exodus in a family setting are the most important elements of the holiday, and that celebrating an elegant Passover at Marco Polo is far better than stopping at MacDonald's and going to a movie. The reality is that most Jews don't keep kosher any night of the year, so why should this night be different? A supporter of this camp might say that no one listened at Grandpa's one-man Hebrew Seder, and at least these restaurant events are participatory. Besides, if all those Jews who are boastful about their level of their kashrut really cared, wouldn't they invite all those who are traditionally-challenged to come in to eat? If celebrating a kosher Pessah Seder is so important, why aren't the communities providing a dinner for all? I have heard it claimed by some involved in encouraging return to tradition, that Jews who are brought up with no background whatsoever have greater potential for fully embracing Judaism than those who have imbibed a less strict version of Judaism. I've never been convinced. Can we say with authority that those who eat kneidel formed by Chef Ngo are less likely to connect with their Jewish roots than those who don't celebrate Passover at all? We have not yet come to the day described by the Prophet Malachi when we can easily discern who serves the Creator and who doesn't. Good or bad for the Jews, Pessah in its multiple forms is proliferating. The tastes, scents, emotions, and yes - even the arguments at the Seder - are such strong ties of our tradition that Jewish sons and daughters travel thousands of miles to be with their families. Pessah remains the ultimate anchor to our identity. In Egypt, according to rabbinical tradition, we'd also given up nearly all religious practice even though we were segregated in a Jewish neighborhood and united by oppression. We'd only held on to our Jewish names, our manner of dress and our language while slaves in Egypt. We needed Divine intervention - a Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm to show us the way out. We can't dictate the ways of heaven, but in the meantime, we can certainly stretch out our arms to our brethren wherever they live and whatever they believe.