This week is Passover, an eight day holiday commemorating the liberation of Jewish slaves from Egypt more than 33-hundred years ago. It was celebrated Monday with the long Seder dinner, and Jews outside of Israel have a second Seder Tuesday night.
Seder means “order,” a Hebrew word that is also the verb used to set the table; and at the center of that table is the Seder plate, most commonly a porcelain plate with a Star of David or the Hebrew word Pesach — for Passover — inscribed in its center, surrounded by six indentations, each labeled for the symbolic food it’s meant to contain.
Although this plate can be quite ordinary, over the centuries it has been a vehicle for artists to express religious devotion through beautification, and, increasingly, for them to give visual form to the evolving Seder liturgy itself. Hear about how on this segment, with guest Avishay Artsy.
This segment originated with an article written for the Jewish Journal by KCRW producer Avishay Artsy, in which he writes “the seder plate is to Passover as the turkey is to Thanksgiving. It’s the centerpiece of the meal. So it’s no wonder that a number of contemporary artists have adopted the seder plate as a medium for which to explore and question Jewish traditions and values.”
Although any plain, unadorned plate can also fulfill this function, the beautification of Seder plates is in keeping with the tradition of hiddur mitzvah — a directive to make a mitzvah beautiful, “creating aesthetics that encourage us to practice Jewish rituals,” according to Laura Cowan, a Judaica designer based in Tel Aviv.
Avishay talks about how today’s seder plate designers tend to be more abstract, less ornamental designs than in the past, and we hear from designer Jonathan Adler who says his Futura seder plate draws on the modernist impulse in Modern churches and synagogues, “particularly the organic modernism and brutalist style of reform temples.”
Recalling a Vegan-Anarchist-Feminist seder he attended last year, Avishay talks about how evolving nature of the seder plate is reflected in the seder meal and the discussion that takes place there.
He talks to Lori Starr, executive director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, which held an artist invitational show in 2009 titled “New Works/Old Story: 80 Artists at the Passover Table.”
She reminds us that “each year we always call to mind, ‘Who is not free right now?’ We were fortunate to gain our freedom, but in this world, as we speak, people are enslaved; people are experiencing oppression, prejudice, discrimination.”
Read Avishay’s complete article for the Jewish Journal here.
Images, clockwise from top: Laser cut stainless steel floral seder plate by Melanie Dankowicz; Dune seder plate shiny displayed with signed egg dish by Laura Cowan; Pomegranate seder plate by Michael Aram; Futura seder plate by Jonathan Adler