Snooze-Proof Seder

Guests at one of Heidi Kahn’s Passover potlucks stepped into a desert oasis. That year, her Irvine tract home was transformed with a Bedouin makeover achieved by suspending a tent inside. Another year, guests, who always contribute to the feast, were also asked to bring household goods and were put to work assembling care packages for Jews trying to flee the former Soviet Union.

Typically, the amphibian plague, one of many inflicted on ancient Egypt in the biblical story of Exodus, gets a star turn at Kahn’s seder. Plastic frogs croak unexpectedly at arriving guests, who can fold origami frogs while waiting for latecomers. Some guests even don frog masks.

“When you’ve sat through a lifetime of tedious seders and create your own tedious seders, and then go to Heidi’s place and play, no seder will ever compare,” said friend and past guest, Gail Shendelman, of Irvine. “I’m spoiled for life.”

Throwing over typical seder conventions for a sensory and culture-rich affair leaves some of Kahn’s guests infused with Jewish pride and others spiritually reconnected. Nobody goes away dreading Passover.

“It’s like a giant party and teaching experience,” said Kahn, mentor teacher at Irvine’s University Synagogue and a preschool program at the Jewish Community Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa.

“She likes to take a multisensory approach,” said Nancy Kouraklis, another University teacher, who says Kahn’s classroom invariably includes objects to smell and touch, music and ingenious projects.

Her seder is equally marked with myriad novel details that evoke the holiday’s symbolism and origin.

“It’s so creative. It’s like a Broadway production,” said Ilene S. Mountain, a two-time Kahn seder guest.

The first act typically involves children retelling the Passover story. As preschoolers, Kahn’s own girls, Marlee, now 11, and Jordana, 9, romped as the Egyptian princesses who cradled baby Moses. In later years, as Kahn would narrate, every invited child would display a scene they had been preassigned to depict artistically.

This year’s theme wasn’t clear yet. “It depends on the crowd. I’m not ready to commit,” she said.

A native of South Africa, Passover is Kahn’s favorite holiday. She overfills her home with as many as 40 visitors, which always include her parents and siblings. “I don’t want to say no to anyone,” she said.

Kahn can spend four days on meticulous preparations, such as the rose petal bed that cushions a huge, water-filled glass bowl that elegantly elevates hand-washing with nature’s perfume.

The seder’s second act around the dining room table typically lasts 90 minutes and is directed by Kahn, who calls on guests to participate in turn. “There’s not a boring moment in the whole thing,” Mountain said.

Each chair is equipped with a personalized seder pack of props, such as hammers to represent tools of enslavement, and “A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah” by David Dishon and Noam Zion (Shalom Hartman Institute, 1997). Selected guests receive special props, such as a shower of styrofoam that substitutes for a plague of hail or Pharaoh’s crown.

Also at Kahn’s instruction, guests have laden the table with nondairy, vegetarian concoctions because of family food allergies. The menu always includes traditional Passover foods, but with a twist: charoset, for instance, is flavored with Egyptian or Yemenite spices.

Unlike most seders, where guests ignore hunger pangs while the haggadah unfolds, Kahn encourages noshers throughout to fortify themselves.

“The dress code is you have to be able to dance and eat excessively,” she said.

Playing guitar or pounding drums, her brother, Brian Sepel, interrupts the reading for traditional songs such “Dayenu,” or atypical ones such as “There’s No Seder Like My Seder,” sung to the show tune “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

Some guests are wary of letting their hair down. Intuitively, Kahn intercedes.

“I get embarrassed to read aloud,” Mountain said. “Before I even said anything, she says to me, ‘Don’t worry. I have just one paragraph for you to read.'”

One exotic Sephardic ritual stands out for many guests. Kahn ordered everyone from his or her seat to march in a circular procession. She handed each a sheaf of green onions, which to were to use as faux whips on the backs of their neighbors.

“It was kind of silly and juvenile,” Shendelman said. “It took many of us out of our comfort zone. But it did have a different meaning. She taught me a lesson in what it felt like to be a slave and told what to do.”

In the final act, the search for the afikomen (the hidden matzah ), is a treasure hunt that requires clues for its solution. Every child receives a prize.

Kahn’s extravaganza does have its downside.

“You’ll never be able to go to another seder again.” said Mountain. Any other, she said, “is a big snooze.”

Complicated Branches

"The Syringa Tree," which won the 2001 Obie Award for best play and premieres in Los Angeles this week, might be the first theatrical work to deal with the complicated and ambiguous relations between Jews and blacks in South Africa. A solo performance written and acted by Pamela Gien, it is a partly fictionalized — though mostly factual — account of a half-Jewish, half-English child in Johannesburg during apartheid. Created by Gien in a Santa Monica acting class in 1996, the play was inspired by the brutal murder of Gien’s grandfather when she was a child.

Using little in the way of stage effects outside of a swing and a cyclorama (a two-layered semicircular backdrop), Gien creates an uncommonly moving, even wrenching, study of race relations as seen through the eyes of a little girl, Elizabeth, aka Lizzy. I was reminded of James Agee’s tone-poem "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," where the daily events of adults are experienced through the imagination, and expressed through the luminous images, of a child.

Yet "The Syringa Tree" — Gien’s debut writing effort — is about a lot more than the nostalgia of a lazy day in Tennessee. It is concerned with the suffering of black people under apartheid and the various ways whites dealt with their responsibility for it.

In a speech given to the Harvard Jewish faculty by my wife, Doreen Beinart, a Jewish South African, she noted that while organized Jewry (including the Jewish Board of Deputies and most Orthodox rabbis) did not protest apartheid for fear of being subjected to Afrikaner bigotry, individual Jews — such as Joe Slovo, chief of staff of the military wing of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress — were often among the most active white people fighting racism.

That divided attitude permeates Gien’s play. From the moment the black maid, Sellamina, refers to her little charge as "my pickaninny missus," we are in a nest of nurturing warmth and color-blind affection built on a foundation of hierarchy and subjugation — somewhat like that of the antebellum American South.

In order to depict such a world, Gien has single-handedly created a theatrical album of 24 characters. She was once an actress in my company, the American Repertory Theatre, but nothing in her previous work prepared me for what she is delivering here — a series of character transformations so instantaneous and intense that the stage seems peopled with multitudes.

Still, it is not just the technical achievement that startles one into attention. It is the way she manages to delineate, physically and vocally, a whole world of whites, blacks, Jews and Afrikaners — a world of divided identities where the very fact that a black baby (Sellamina’s daughter, Moliseng) has been born without "papers" can destroy her and uproot everyone around her.

Gien has perfect pitch in the way she depicts characters, such as the harassed father dispensing precious medicines; the slightly hysterical, vaguely depressed mother; the rigid Afrikaner farmers praying for rain, and particularly the stoical Faulknerian maid and her own child whom Lizzy’s parents help to birth.

Lizzy’s Jewish father is a doctor and her English mother manages the black staff with sympathy, yet both mother and father are regarded as outlanders, by blacks and whites alike.

When Sellamina takes Moliseng to her family in Soweto, the little girl gets sick and is lost in a hospital where people are dying of dehydration. In her terror and grief, Sellamina rocks under the syringa tree, mindless of the berries falling on her body. Lizzy’s parents help to find the little girl and return her safely to her mother.

It is that sort of thing that leads the hard-nosed Afrikaner farmers to believe that the Jews and English are making trouble with the blacks who will come and kill them in their beds.

Sadly, the Afrikaner prophecy comes true. Lizzy’s father discovers that his wife’s parents have been murdered on their Natal farm in the course of a petty theft. Sellamina is so ashamed of the violence that she can no longer look the family in the eye, and soon she leaves. Not long thereafter, the terrible events of Soweto erupt.

Eventually, the grown-up Elizabeth departs for America, vowing never to come back because "we don’t change things." Nonetheless, she returns to Johannesburg after the fall of apartheid, is reunited with Sellamina and finds her past again. This reunion constitutes a poem of inconsolable loss and nostalgia ("Oh God, how I miss it!") that leaves the audience grieving as much as the central character for the beloved country. At the end of the play, she is back where she began, on a swing, ecstatic with a vision of lost paradise.

The performance is impeccable. Gien has a meticulous eye for detail and the capacity to render each moment with truth and illumination. Don’t miss this transcendent dramatic experience.