August 22, 2019

A Lifetime of Seders

For someone whose mother says she had to coax him to eat, Mandy Patinkin certainly has a lot of fond memories about food.

As Patinkin tells it, he’d wait impatiently at the Passover table for her chocolate sponge cake topped with raspberry sauce, and he’d sneak sugar cookies and brownies from the dessert trays as they lay cooling for the family Chanukah celebration. His mouth still waters when he thinks of Ma’s kosher hot dogs and baked beans (the secret is “a little bit of sugar”) and her amazing hot cream cheese puffs (“You have to use Philadelphia cream cheese,” he warns).

As Patinkin, best known for his roles in the television series “Chicago Hope” and the film “Yentl,” got older, his culinary tastes spread to McDonald’s. His horrified aunts and grandma repeatedly asked his mother, “How can you let him eat that junk?” But Doralee Patinkin, a cook so skilled that she would later write two Jewish cookbooks, was pragmatic. “He’s so skinny,” she said. “Finally he likes something. I’m not going to let him eat it?”

The Chicago-raised Patinkin is something of a poster boy for the warm, extended Jewish family — the children and grandsons and granddaughters of Eastern European immigrants who came to this country early in the 20th century to seek their fortunes and raise their families. Only someone with a real feeling for the old songs and the old customs could have recorded “Mamaloshen,” Patinkin’s hit album of Yiddish standards and American songs translated into the mother-tongue.

On the first night of Passover his family would flock to Auntie Ida’s for the seder. There was a minimum of 25 people at the annual event, sitting at tables spread around the apartment, eating fabulous food off her red glass Passover plates. After the last dessert was devoured, the last glass of wine imbibed and the prophet Elijah acknowledged, a teenaged Mandy would enter, barefoot, draped in a white sheet, carrying a staff, and singing “Eliahu HaNavi”: the self appointed ghost of Passovers past.

Doralee’s family, the Sintons, would come to the Patinkins for second-night seder. Young Mandy would help make the charoset and deferentially taste the chocolate matzo before the rest of the guests arrived. Then he’d get ready to sing. “Our seders were very musical. As the kids got older they really began to rock,” Doralee says.

Today Patinkin, who opens April 13 on Broadway in the musical “The Wild Party,” and his wife, actress Kathryn Grody, host a huge seder for family and friends at their home in New York. “We try to make it very ‘kid friendly’ and casual; sometimes we sit on the floor,” Patinkin says. “We invite an army of people and we encourage everyone to participate.”

Sons Isaac, 17, and Gideon, 13, don the white sheets to emulate Elijah. They even spill a cup of wine to make bare footprints on the floor so everyone will know Elijah is for real.

“It’s an exciting event in our house, just as it was in my parents’,” Patinkin says. “But Kathryn and I are our own kind of Jews. We wrote our own haggadah and made up our own prayers, using words from the Bible, Shakespeare’s sonnets, political essays, and quotes from songs.” Among the “outside” writers represented in the Patinkins’ Haggadah are poet Marge Piercy, Martin Luther King and Anne Frank. “We tried to combine the traditional story with what’s relevant today,” Grody says.

Judaism remains an integral part of Patinkin’s life. “I say prayers everyday; every Shabbos, we have a wonderful dinner in our house. Being Jewish, singing the songs, saying the prayers — it gives me a wonderful feeling.

“If there’s a message I want to convey it’s ‘investigate your heritage,'” Patinkin says, who credits his experience with “Mamaloshen” as a turning point in his Jewish connectedness. “It opened up great avenues in my life. It changed me forever.”

How Mandy Patinkin Got His Mother to Write Two Cookbooks at 70-something.

“He was always calling me for recipes,” says Doralee Patinkin. “As a child, the extent of his culinary accomplishment was chocolate chip cookies. Now, all of a sudden, he loves to cook. Every holiday he’d be on the phone: How do you make the brisket? How do you make the turkey? How do you make the sweet potatoes?”

“She’d given me the recipes a million times. I kept losing the pieces of paper,” Patinkin laughs. “So I told her I was sending her a computer and printer, and she was going to write them down.” In the foreword to “Grandma Doralee Patinkin’s Jewish Family Cookbook” (St. Martin’s Press, 1997), her first book, Patinkin writes, “As children we learn from our parents. I hope I swallowed the passion and love my mom displayed in her kitchen… for what it is that I do in my life.”

When a kid in the Patinkin-Sinton clan had a bar or bat mitzvah, Doralee Patinkin would show up with dessert. It didn’t matter what city the ceremony was in. She’d fill suitcases with her baked goods, schlep them to the party, and lay out sumptuous spreads of sweets.

Patinkin gently teases his mom. “Her sweets are to die for, and they’ll kill you,” he quips. “If you eat them often, you’ll be dead before your time, but you’ll have a great time getting there. If you don’t like them, send them to me and I’ll eat them,” he adds.

Although Patinkin claims “anything my mom makes tastes like it came out of a five-star restaurant,” Doralee says her food isn’t gourmet; the cookbook is made up of old-fashioned Jewish dishes that most Americans — Jewish or not — know and love.

Of course, for Patinkin, his mother’s cookbooks — the second, “Grandma Doralee Patinkin’s Holiday Cookbook” came out last year — are more than just recipes. He loves hunting through the pages looking for his childhood. “The greatest thing about these books,” he says, “is that this part of my childhood isn’t lost.” B.L.