On Tuesday night, I sat around the Seder table with a group of young Russian Jews, most of whom knew little about Passover or had never celebrated the holiday before. These are the children of parents and grandparents who were denied access to their Jewish heritage and came to America with little knowledge of the Jewish holidays, customs and traditions. These are the Jews that actually walked lovingly into the Passover Seder last night with a not-at-all-Kosher-for-Passover red velvet cake for dessert.
For this crowd, moving through the motions of the Haggadah was a bit of a bore. The language in our Haggadot was archaic (we were using Maxwell House's last edition -- with dark, religious imagery and intense the-Lord-this and the-Lord-that lingo). And the more traditional elements of the Seder -- the hand washing and four questions -- were buried under obvious confusion, and frankly for some, the desire to just get to meal already.
The Passover story wasn't resonating. The tale of our people's Exodus from Egypt -- from slavery to freedom -- was muddied under the banal text. And singing the tunes from my childhood (Dayenu, Eliyahu Hanavi), dipping my pinky into the wine for the plagues and eating the Hillel sandwich -- all of the things that connect me to the Seder and the Passover story -- didn't mean anything to my Seder-mates.
This traditional way of doing Passover wasn't working.
So how do we make old stories and ancient traditions relevant, resonant and meaningful, I wondered? What will connect the next generation of Jews to their Jewish identity, histor, and culture?
The Contemporaries Jewish Museum (CJM) is answering that very question this Saturday night with their Out of Order Seder. In fact, CJM prides itself on making the diversity of the Jewish experience relevant for a 21st century audience.
Melding contemporary and traditional Jewish themes through a hip-hop medium, the CJM's Contemporaries Committee, a group of Bay Area young professional art enthusiasts, is shaking things up and re-imagining Passover to make it compelling for a new crowd in 2013.
Dan Wolf, co-founder of the hip-hop group Felonious, and producer of the event's centerpiece performance, told me that he's "removing the table and inserting the turntables" to create a space where "Jewishness, creativity, and tradition can be looked at in a brand new way." Inspired by the work of artist Kehinde Wiley -- whose paintings of Israeli men and Judaic designs are on display at the museum through May 27 -- and with the help of Stanford Chair of Education and Jewish Studies, Ari Kelman, Wolf's original content will be a true mash up of old and new.
Through his theatrical and hip-hop re-rendering of the Passover story and the Four Children, Wolf's goal is to help event-goers connect to our peoples past struggle from slavery in a way that resonates with them today.
And Wolf is going way beyond the ancient slavery to freedom narrative by calling into question what slavery and freedom mean to each of us, here and now, and exploring the question himself as an artist in the music industry.
"I want people to feel the story of Passover," he told me. "There will be things that they recognize about their own personal journey during Passover."
And connecting the past to the present -- and relating to a fresh generation of Jews -- is exactly what the CJM's Contemporaries Committee set out to do.
"I think a lot about engaging the next generation of Jews," David Saxe, a lay leader of CJM and Contemporaries Committee member, told me. "The people coming out of college don't want the same things that myself or my parents or grandparents wanted. Things need to be constantly re-evaluated to appeal to this generation," he said. "People want something that speaks to them and their own brand of Jewish identity."
And something new is clearly what this upcoming event is all about.
"The name says it all," Wolf said.
He's right. And if an Out of Order Seder isn't cutting edge, I don't know what is.