Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

How to host your first seder

Hosting a dinner party can be stressful enough. Hosting a seder for the first time can seem positively overwhelming. There are so many moving parts. We spoke to four veteran hosts who have hosted more than 100 Passover seder dinners between them. Here is some of their advice.

Start Early

“There is a lot of detail with this holiday,” said Liat Miller, 37, of Sherman Oaks. Miller, who identifies as a liberal Conservative Jew, always starts by making a guest list, which dictates whether she needs to rent tables and chairs.

Especially if you’re doing kosher, Miller said, “going to the butcher the week before is a nightmare.” Miller suggests purchasing the meat in advance and freezing it. She generally cooks a brisket two days before the meal. She lets it cool, slices it and pops it in the fridge. “Then you just heat it before you serve it.”

Sandy Croll, 75, of Beverly Hills, whose family worships at Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles, said lamb shanks for the seder plate can be hard to come by and often sell out. Make advance arrangements. “There’s no formula [for Passover],” she offered, “except, ‘Be prepared.’ ”

Choose a Haggadah and a Leader

There are so many haggadah options. Find one that resonates with you and is appropriate for your audience. Beverly Hills resident Leanore Saltz, 88, who has long been active in the local secular Jewish community, has a collection of secular haggadot she has acquired over the years, including one from the Sholem Community and another from the Workmen’s Circle Cultural Center, both Los Angeles-based organizations. She likes that they talk about Passover “in an historical sense” as well as “our obligations today as Jews.”

Miller suggests a simple haggadah for first-timers. She and her husband considered the “30 Minute Seder” available on Amazon. Instead, she simply customized one she already had by highlighting portions she found most meaningful. “I can’t get 20 kids to listen for two hours,” she said. “You have to be realistic.”

Make sure you have enough haggadot. Croll recommends one for every other person so people can share easily, if not one for every guest. “It keeps people on track and keeps people involved,” she said.

And even if you envision a very participatory seder, with people taking turns reading or reading together, designate a leader, in advance.

Also, consider reading through the haggadah several days before the holiday to get a better sense of timing and to make sure you have everything you need at your fingertips. For example, Croll said, traditionally at a seder, the leader of the service washes her hands ceremonially. So she sets an attractive bowl and pitcher of water at the table expressly for this purpose.

Don’t Go It Alone

The first seder Evelyn Drapkin, 46, hosted nearly a dozen years ago at her home in Los Feliz might easily have been her last. A member of Temple Beth Hillel, she tried to do everything on her own. “It was really hard,” she said. “Dinner wasn’t on time. It wasn’t as peaceful. … I was like, ‘I’m never doing it again.’ ”

Instead, the following year she asked her guests to bring the side dishes. That has remained her system. Those who don’t cook, she asks to bring wine.

And there’s no rule that says everything has to be homemade. One year, Saltz’s husband made gefilte fish from scratch. “It was so timeconsuming,” she said. Now she buys Manischewitz gefilte fish. To give it additional flavor, she cooks it with sautéed onions and carrots as well as white wine and seasonings. And though she’s never done it herself, she points out that there are plenty of businesses such as Got Kosher? on Pico Boulevard where you can pick up an entire Passover dinner (orders must be placed by April 3).

Consider doing individual seder plates for each guest with the bitter herbs, charoset, vegetable (often parsley) and salt water. This way, Croll said, people aren’t reaching across the table and spilling wine and grape juice and dripping salt water everywhere. “I use little plastic throwaways,” she said.

And make certain you have plenty of matzo.

Consider reading through the Haggadah several days before the holiday to get a better sense of timing and to make sure you have everything you need at your fingertips.

Have Fun

Passover, Saltz said, is a happy holiday. So singing is a big part of their evening. Most haggadot feature several songs. But you don’t need to limit yourself to those. Saltz and her family sing Yiddish songs as well as the Israeli folk song “Zum Gali Gali.”

Croll makes sure every guest has a packet that includes song lyrics to all the tunes they sing, including “Let My People Go” and “The Ballad of the Four Sons,” which is sung to the tune of “Clementine” (Said the father to the children/ At the seder you will dine/ You will eat your fill of matzo/ You will drink four cups of wine). This way, newcomers, or those who may not remember the words from one year to the next, can sing along.

In keeping with the tradition she grew up with in Israel, Miller usually gets something new to wear that evening. So do her husband and kids. “It’s spring, a new beginning,” she said.

Remember the Kids

It’s the rare child who will sit quietly and contentedly through a long seder. Croll always sets up a special kids activity table with Passover-themed coloring pages and puzzles.

One year, leading up to the seder, Miller asked one of her guests who is especially good with kids to come up with something to keep the younger guests busy while the main course was being plated. Miller’s friend created a scavenger hunt based on the Israelites. It was a huge hit. Miller also sometimes puts on an animated movie about the Exodus when the kids’ attention starts to fade. “At least it’s in the spirit of the holiday,” she said.

And don’t forget to get prizes for the kids if you plan to hide the afikomen. Also, children can and should help with the preparations. Drapkin shows her two school-age daughters a place setting once the tables and linens are set up, then she has them replicate that.

Know Your Audience

While the desire to include everyone in the festivities is understandable, remember that not every guest is necessarily eager to lead off the group in song or read a passage featuring unfamiliar words. Especially for a child who isn’t a confident reader, “that might be really embarrassing,” Croll said. “I think if there were any doubt, I would check with the parents before.”

Make It Your Own

If there is something you want to do at your seder or put on your seder table, go for it. For the hosts we spoke with, often it is the original aspects, the parts you won’t find in any haggadah, that are most meaningful. For example, several years ago, Croll’s husband introduced a group reading of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at their seder. This has remained a fixture of the gathering.

The Drapkins light multiple yahrzeit candles for loved ones they have lost, including Evelyn’s mom, as well as the Jews who died in the Holocaust, and victims of 9/11. They also invite their guests to light candles for anyone they have lost. It’s a tradition Drapkin picked up from her mother-in-law.

Saltz intends to add an orange to her seder table this year. This was something she learned at a seder hosted by the National Council of Jewish Women, a group she is active in. “The orange symbolizes fertility and that the women did all these things back in the ancient days but were never given credit for it,” she said. “So you put one orange on the table. That orange represents Miriam. She danced and sang. She brought life to the table.”

Consider Hiring Help

“I personally think Passover is the most difficult meal,” Saltz said. “You’re making so many different courses.” She said she uses more dishes than at any other holiday. But she doesn’t find it stressful, in part because it’s very much a group effort at her home, with her husband making his famous double chicken soup a week in advance. Saltz makes the hard matzo balls her family favors the day of, and her adult daughters contribute kugel, vegetable sides and desserts.

“I just find someone to do the dishes,” she said.

That’s an investment Miller wholeheartedly supports. “If you can afford help, you should get help. Give yourself the break of the whole night off.”

As Passover approaches, longtime OU kosher supervisor sounds alarm on Manischewitz

Three days before the beginning of Passover, Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, a veteran mashgiach (kosher supervisor) for the Orthodox Union (OU), filed a lawsuit against Manischewitz and the OU, saying he can no longer stand behind the kosher status of the Manischewitz products he has supervised for 20 years, including its Passover matzos.

“I believe this is a breach of public trust. I just couldn’t handle it,” Horowitz told the Journal on April 21, two days after he filed suit in the New York State Supreme Court.

Within the kashrut world, and particularly when it comes to Manischewitz, Horowitz is seen as a knowledgeable authority. The OU website’s “Getting to Know Your Matzah” article — which gives the ins and outs of matzah kashrut — was written by Horowitz, and he has been interviewed on numerous occasions by major news outlets as a source for Passover kashrut in general, and Manischewitz specifically.

Since 2014, Manischewitz has been owned by Sankaty Advisors, an arm of the private equity giant Bain Capital. In March 2015, when The New York Times’ “Dealbook” section published an article on Manischewitz’s ownership, it quoted Horowitz praising Sankaty’s executives for having “shown a concern for kosher in a special way.” When contacted on April 21, a spokesperson for Bain Capital referred to the Orthodox Union for comment.

Horowitz now alleges, however, that since 2009, Manischewitz’s 200,000-square-foot plant in Newark, N.J., has intentionally bypassed OU kashrut guidelines on several occasions, and that the OU consistently did not support him when he raised concerns. In his lawsuit, Horowitz says OU personnel told him the OU was “feeling pressure within the kosher food industry” because it had lost some accounts to other kosher certifiers.

Horowitz also alleges that when he told the OU that the Manischewitz president warned him that his “job would be in jeopardy if he did not lower kashrut standards,” the implicit message he received from the OU, his employer, was that he needed to “keep Manischewitz happy.”

Both in the lawsuit and in the interview with the Journal, Horowitz listed specific incidents he thinks the public should be aware of, and he said he left the job in December because he could no longer in good faith stand behind OU’s kashrut seal for Manischewitz.

Manischewitz manufactures hundreds of items year-round, and is a massively popular supplier of Passover items such as matzo, wine, gefilte fish and macaroons.

Manischewitz has not yet responded to a request for comment, but the Orthodox Union released the following statement:

“The allegations in this suspiciously-timed lawsuit are entirely without merit, and we will contest this matter vigorously. We certify that the Kashrut of Manischewitz is today, and has always been, at the highest level. Consumers can confidently rely upon the integrity of the Kashrut this Passover and throughout the year.”

Among the most recent of the alleged kashrut violations is from December 2015, when Horowitz says Manischewitz accidentally ran a non-Passover product on its Passover macaroon line, contaminating the entire line, according to OU standards. Horowitz alleges the plant manager did not tell him or other OU personnel about the contamination, allegedly tried to kasher the equipment himself and then continued production. Horowitz said that when he found out about the issue and reported it, the OU excluded him from its investigation and then concluded everything was fine.

The day after the plant manager had done his own koshering of the line, it caught fire, Horowitz alleges, “because there was chametz residue remaining in the ovens.” Nevertheless, Horowitz says, Manischewitz shipped that line’s macaroons, with OU’s kosher for Passover seal, and OU neither issued a recall or a public alert.

In the suit, Horowitz also says that after 18 years of supervising the silos from where the Passover flour was shipped, that duty was stripped from him. And after receiving one particular 40,000-pound delivery of flour, he had to reject it because the containers the flour was shipped in were wet, a clear Passover violation because once flour and water mix, it must enter the oven after no more than 18 minutes.

“I was being kept in the dark,” Horowitz told the Journal. “I was the guy for 20 years, totally in charge of the entire operation. I was the arbiter. If I didn’t know about something, then there’s something very wrong, because I was hired to be in charge. I’m the one that’s expected to say that it’s kosher.”

Horowitz left the Manischewitz plant in December and has not done kashrut work since. He’s suing the OU and Manischewitz for, among other things, defamation and infliction of emotional distress, which he said resulted in him having to take medical leave, the specifics of which are “stress related.” He’s still employed by the OU but said it stopped paying him one week after he left, and recently stopped paying for his medical insurance.

“[There is] no question that that stress relates to all of the aggravation that I felt that I had to fix what was broken and needed to be addressed,” Horowitz said. When asked why he filed the suit just before Passover, Horowitz said it was his last resort after many attempts of trying to resolve his concerns without going the legal route.

“I filed this complaint with great sadness,” Horowitz said. “I have gone way beyond the call of duty trying to get their attention, begging them to address these issues — they and the Manischewitz company. I only went forward with this lawsuit when people that I sent to intercede told me you’re wasting your time.”

Horowitz said he had hoped that those people, who he said are prominent and reputable but that neither he nor his attorney, Arnold Pedowitz, would name, could help resolve Horowitz’s objections to OU’s and Manischewitz’s kashrut standards at the Newark plant.

He declined to answer whether there are any specific Manischewitz products he won’t eat this year for Passover, but said that when he left in December, the degree of the problems in the possible kashrut status of Manischewitz products “was exceedingly severe.”

“To tell you that I know that the things on your plate are no good, I can’t tell you that,” Horowitz said, adding, though, that he also “can’t tell you it is good” since he’s no longer there to supervise.

“The only way I can keep that job is I have a certain amount of certainty that that thing is good. I didn’t have that certainty,” Horowitz said. “I could not in good conscience go into Passover knowing there are people who would look at products and say, ‘If Horowitz says it’s fine, then that’s good enough for me.’ ”


Teaming up, Welch’s and Manischewitz challenge kosher grape juice monopoly

Welch’s is coming to seder this year.

For decades, America’s kosher grape juice market has been dominated by Kedem, whose sweet libations come in concord, blush, white, peach, diet and a variety of sparkling flavors.

But with U.S. sales flat when it comes to non-kosher grape juice, Welch’s, America’s largest grape juice company, is muscling its way into the kosher market.

Starting in January, Welch’s will begin selling 100 percent grape juice certified by the Orthodox Union as kosher for Passover and year-round use. The kosher juice is being produced in partnership with Manischewitz, the 120-year-old kosher food company known for its sweet concord wine and ubiquitous Passover matzah. The bottles will carry both the Welch’s and Manischewitz logos, and Manischewitz matzah boxes will carry ads for the grape juice.

“What’s very cool about it is taking advantage of what Manischewitz does for kosher consumers and what Welch’s does for grape juice consumers and really bringing that together,” Ike Kim, senior brand manager of Welch’s bottled juice business, told JTA.

Welch’s recipe won’t change, but the production process for its kosher juice line, including regular and sparkling, will be subject to the same strict production restrictions that apply to kosher wine: namely, that the juice passes exclusively through observant Jewish hands from the time it is pressed until it is pasteurized.

“It’s long overdue for Manischewitz to come out with a grape juice,” said David Sugarman, Manischewitz’s CEO.

Welch’s still will maintain its regular line of grape juices, which will not be certified as kosher.

Unlike the non-organic Kedem lines, Welch’s kosher grape juice does not use sulfites as a preservative, Lee said.

Kedem’s parent company, Royal Wine Corp., did not return a call seeking comment.

Both Kedem’s and Welch’s juice are considered 100 percent grape juice and fulfill the Jewish legal requirements necessary to use the drink for sacramental purposes like Kiddush and Havdalah.

This is not the first time that Welch’s has gone kosher. Some years ago the company tried a kosher grape juice, but it was discontinued relatively quickly. Welch’s hopes that by teaming up with Manischewitz, things will turn out differently this time around.

“The fact that we’re going to this market with Manischewitz is a huge differentiator from history for us,” Kim said. “Once we see how we perform on Passover, that will help us understand how much we can grow the kosher market.”

The brew that’s fit for a Jew

Manischewitz has its role, but now and then a Jew needs a good cold beer.

Shmaltz Brewing Co., with headquarters in San Francisco and a brewery in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., has been producing beers worthy of the Chosen People for 15 years and counting.

“Completely shocking,” says proprietor Jeremy Cowan, when asked about his brand’s longevity. In fact, Cowan says he is still not sure how it’s even possible that the first 100 cases of Shmaltz—handcrafted as an experiment for Hanukkah in 1996—have grown into the production of over 10,000 barrels a year internationally.

In celebration of the 15th year, a series of new and repackaged brews are being released, including the appropriately named Jewbelation 15 and Genesis 15:15. There is even a new book that chronicles the company’s first 13 years called Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah, which includes a list of suggested beers to accompany each chapter.

“When I started Shmaltz, it was really just an experiment,” Cowan says. “I just thought it would be fun and funny to make this country’s first and only Jewish celebration beer.”

With the help of a small brewery in Northern California, the former English major pitched a business idea (despite not knowing a dram from a dreidel), and Shmaltz was born. Hand-brewed, hand-labeled and hand-delivered, the first bottles of Shmaltz quickly caught on, even outside the Jewish community.

“Once I got into the project,” Cowan recalls, “I realized this was my opportunity to create my own brand of a Jewish community organization. [It] allowed me to celebrate my culture and to tie it into Jewish text, holidays, and traditions in a meaningful contemporary way most relevant to my own sensibility.”

While he is happy with his creation’s cache in the Christian and Catholic worlds, Cowan is especially proud of the impact he has had in Jewish homes. Most of his beers are certified by the Kosher Supervision of America (KSA), which is accepted by the Orthodox Union (OU) worldwide.

When it comes to kosher dietary law, beer isn’t subject to the same level of rabbinic and Talmudic scrutiny as wine is, Cowan notes. However, he says it “was important to get the [Shmaltz] beers kosher certified so the whole community, regardless of their level of observance, would feel confident bringing our products into their homes and into their lives.”

Cowan says the name of Shmaltz’s first offering—“He’Brew”—was a “fun shtick my pals came up with when we were just slightly underage in Northern California.” Though his product has been the subject of “lots of funny looks and questions,” Cowan emphasizes that the most important judge—his mother—approves.

“She even helped me deliver cases of the first batch,” he says, noting that she is “relieved that the business is doing well enough that I don’t need to sleep on her fold-out couch nearly as often as I used to.”

Once people get past the name, Cowan suggests, they often find that Shmaltz products are more than just a Jewish joke. “When people read the story and taste…the beer,” he says, “[they] realize…that I was very serious about this fun and delicious project that honestly celebrates Jewish tradition, text, and sensibility, [and] they love it.”

For its 10th anniversary, Shmaltz expanded by adding a new line of East Coast-inspired beers. Approached by “a nice Jewish boy from Manhattan” who had become a fan and who wanted Cowan to help celebrate New York’s most famous playground—Coney Island—Cowan decided to kick off a “sideshow” beer line to raise money for the famous fun park.

Today, Shmaltz’s Coney Island line includes such Boardwalk-inspired flavors as Albino Python, Sword Swallower, Human Blockhead, and Freaktoberfest.

“For over 125 years, Coney Island has been America’s Playground,” Cowan suggests. “Shmaltz Brewing is ecstatic to celebrate that flavor and spirit through this exceptional line of unique craft lagers.”

Looking to the future, Shmaltz continues to expand while keeping its roots firmly in mind.

“One of my favorite parts of my craft beer business is to play with stereotypes and add unique angles and create additional layers of meaning and flavor,” Cowan says, “to tickle people’s expectations and increase their delight with our offerings.”

Manischewitz opens new HQ in N.J.

The Manischewitz Co. celebrated the opening of its new headquarters in Newark, N.J., by making the world’s longest piece of matzah.

The production of the 25-foot-long matzah, equal to 336 regular matzah squares, was overseen Tuesday by Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger. Metzger also affixed mezuzahs to the doorways of the company’s offices.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker said the company’s presence in his city “makes me the proudest mayor in America. It gives me great naches,” The Herald News of North Jersey reported.

The headquarters were moved from Secaucus; the Manischewitz production facility had moved to Newark four years ago. The 123-year-old company, which now has 80 corporate positions and up to 400 factory jobs, was founded in Cincinnati.

Where Korbel Meets Manischewitz

Okay, let’s just get this out in the open. The marking of the second millennium since the birth of Jesus is, well, not a Jewish event. In fact, it doesn’t take a theologian to figure out that it’s pretty much a Christian way of chalking up the years.

Nevertheless, Jews will most likely be celebrating Y2K along with rest of the world, not as a Christian holiday, but as milestone that is part of the society in which we live.

“Jews don’t write 5760 on checks,” says Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “You can’t stick your head in the sand and pretend it isn’t one meaningful way of marking time. It’s not a meaningful way of marking time as Jews, but is a meaningful way of marking time, and that has an impact on people.”

Of course, there are ways of celebrating the New Year that are in keeping with Jewish values.

“If a Jewish value is being expressed in the millennium it’s the awareness of time, the sanctity of time and optimism in the future,” Leder says. He contrasts January 1 with Tishri 1, the Jewish New Year.

“Jews don’t celebrate time in a frivolous or careless way, they celebrate the passage time with introspection,” Leder says. With New Years Eve coinciding with Shabbat this year, some shuls grabbed the chance to infuse some Jewish flavor into a secular celebration.

“I did not want Shabbat to be forgotten nor relegated to a position of secondary importance,” says Rabbi Mordecai Kieffer of Temple Beth Emet in Anaheim. “There are plenty of rabbis who decry the incursion of the secular world into the sacred, so I say it is about time that the sacred begin to influence the secular.”

Kieffer decided to combine Korbel toasts with the Maneschewitz kiddush, putting together a “Shabbat in Two Centuries” program for his Conservative congregation. It will begin Friday evening at 8:45 p.m. with a late Shabbat service and Torah study, followed by dinner, games and a midnight toasting of the New Year. The next morning, services will begin at 8:45, there will be a champagne brunch at 10 a.m., followed by Musaf and then a luncheon. For more information call (714) 772-4720.

The Happy Minyan, a Shlomo Carlebach-style group out of Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, thought it would be a great week to team up with Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz of the Chai Center for special Shabbat services and dinner.

Schwartzie, a legend for attracting the unaffiliated, is always looking for a good hook, so he’s letting the Y2K event replace his usual “Not-A-Christmas Party” for this time of year.

“I think it’s just the right mix of ‘aha!’ when you’re looking for what to do,” he says, giving a good alternative to those who don’t want to be in on the club or party scene.

Plus, he adds, “everybody has in the back of their mind, ‘I’m going to go to a Jewish thing, mother will be happy.'”

Services will be at 4:30ish p.m. at the Holiday Inn Select at 1150 South Beverly Drive, north of Pico. Schwartzie will conduct Shabbat services in English, with members of the Happy Minyan leading songs. Dinner and a game of “Stump the Rabbi” will follow, till whenever. The evening is $26; call (310) 391-7995 for more information.

As for Rabbi Leder, he will celebrate Friday, Dec. 31 the only way he knows how.

“How am I going to celebrate? I am going to celebrate around the Shabbat table, with my family, and do what we do every Shabbat: Express our hopes and love for each other. That is a Jewish way of recognizing the passage of time .”