The Joy of Watching Celebrities Proclaim Their Jewishness in ‘Saturday Night Seder’

The star-studded fundraising event reminded me why it matters so much to see famous people be visibly — and publicly — Jewish.

I’m usually over Passover before it even begins. That’s one of the failures of working for a Jewish organization (in my case, this site you’re reading, hello!) — you spend the weeks and months leading up to it prepping for the holiday, so by the time you actually get to it, you feel like you’ve already dedicated so much time to thinking about it, you just want it to be over.

This year, I was especially over Passover. We are living through unprecedented times — you know this, I know this — and Passover just felt like, really? Do we really have to do this? This year of all years?! Besides, I am currently living with my parents, siblings (ages 22 and 16), and boyfriend. One of the greatest joys of holidays is seeing family, coming together, spending a night laughing and drinking and gossiping. But when you’ve spent every waking minute with these people for the past month, it’s a *little* less special, you know?

I assumed my family wasn’t doing anything for Passover, until my mom said we were Zoom-ing with both sides of the family to celebrate. We went from 0 to 100 so fast. Both Zooms were fine, nothing remarkable. My dad’s family joyously sang Dayenu (the best Passover song) off-key and out of sync, and my mom’s family chaotically made our way through an abbreviated seder.

The next few days of Passover passed unremarkably — until Sunday evening, when my boyfriend and I decided to watch “Saturday Night Seder,” touted as “a Passover seder with the family you never knew you had.” It was a star-studded streaming benefit for the CDC Foundation’s Coronavirus Emergency Response Fund.

And it turns out, it was everything I needed.

First, let’s just run down the guest list: It starred Jewish celebrities Dan Levy, Ben Platt, Idina Menzel, Jason Alexander, Billy Eichner, Sarah Silverman, Beanie Feldstein, D’arcy Carden, Judith Light, Nick Kroll, Harvey Fierstein, Shoshana Bean, Skylar Astin, and so many more, alongside rabbis, various thought leaders, and non-Jewish celebs such as Billy Porter, Josh Groban, Rachel Brosnahan, Darren Criss, Cynthia Erivo, and Tan France.

There was something so joyous about watching these Jewish celebrities proclaim their Jewishness loudly and proudly. Watching Dan Levy make a seder plate with famed chef Michael Solomonov’s instructions (for a shank bone, he used a dog treat; for karpas, he used salsa verde), Idina Menzel sing Ma Nishtana, and Richard Kind and Debra Messing tell the Passover story… it was like a balm for my soul. As I sat watching Andy Cohen joke about hiding the afikomen and play up Jewish guilt, Fran Drescher wash her hands while singing The Nanny theme song, Billy Porter belt “Let My People Go,” I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.

I spend many of my days waiting for celebrities to do something Jewish. (Because again, hello, I cover Jewish pop culture for the site you are reading.) I wait for Tiffany Haddish to wear her Star of David necklace; for Taika Waititi to tweet about being a Polynesian Jew; for Paul Rudd to say, “No, I’m not a practicing Jew… I perfected it.” But to be honest, these moments usually come few and far between. Sometimes, it feels like I’m grasping at straws, just looking for any little acknowledgement from a celebrity that they’re Jewish, and that their Judaism means something to them. Yet here I was, watching celebrities share in traditions that feel so dear to my family. Watching them joyously embrace their heritage. Watching the power of representation.

Representation is a funny thing; there are so many Jews in Hollywood, so many Jewish stories, that I am not necessarily searching to see myself on screen. I see myself in Rebecca Bunch; in Alexis and David Rose; in Abbi & Ilana (all shows that are unfortunately over). But watching celebrities share their own Jewish stories — Michael Zegen talking about teasing his brother during the Four Questions, Julie Klausner sharing her Hebrew school memories —  there is something undeniably special about it.

Henry Winkler explained he participated in “Saturday Night Seder” because “as a citizen, even more than as a Jew, I thought it was our responsibility to tell the story as it has been told for over 5,000 years, because it’s a story about survival and renewal.”

“Saturday Night Seder” was put together in two weeks, a brainchild of Benj Pasek, a songwriter (of Dear Evan Hansen and La La Land, among other hits) and Adam Kantor, a Broadway star (most recently in The Band’s Visit). Writers included Alex Edelman and Hannah Friedman, along with composer Shaina Taub. After three days, “Saturday Night Seder” had raised $2,350,000.

The last time I saw such an outpouring of Jewish solidarity from celebrities was after the tragedy in Pittsburgh, at the Tree of Life Synagogue. We are now living through a much different type of tragedy, one where there is no end in sight. And one of the ways this Passover is different from all over Passovers is that, more than ever, Jewish celebrities are prominently proclaiming: We are here. We are Jewish. Let’s talk about it.

But why should that mean anything to us? Does it really matter what celebrities do? Honestly, yes. Not only because it’s a fun reminder that, hey, celebrities are (kinda) like us! But because hearing anybody in the limelight talk about their Jewishness — their culture and heritage — is powerful. It circles back to that question of representation, and why seeing yourself reflected back in the stars we follow matters.

It wasn’t just “Saturday Night Seder” that got stars connecting with Passover. Adam Eli, an activist and writer, organized a digital seder on his Instagram account (@adameli), and recruited some familiar faces to join.

“I chose to do a digital seder because I knew that people would be home alone and missing their own Passover traditions. I wanted to bring meaning to the evening, which is why I asked various voices within the Jewish community to share their thoughts on certain steps of the seder,” Adam explained to me over e-mail. “However, as many of us know, holidays are not all about history and learning. They are also about family, culture and food, a togetherness, an essence of tradition and warmth. Figuring out how to capture that was really difficult.”

“I wasn’t sure if Zoom could properly reflect all those little moments that make Passover so special. By live posting our small family seder on my stories, I was able to capture things like singing, candle lighting, grape juice spills, silly decorations, haroset making, and surprise kosher for Passover birthday cakes. I hoped that these little moments combined with deeper thoughts from some of my Jewish sheroes and queeroes could provide a well-rounded and authentic Passover experience without folks having to leave their couches.” On Adam’s feed, celebs from Ilana Glazer to Chella Man to Chloe Wise to Benj Pasek (who created “Saturday Night Seder”!) each did a step of the seder.

And, so many celebrities — from Natalie Portman to Meghan Markle’s BFF Jessica Mulroney to Emmy Rossum — let us in on their Passover celebrations.

Even amidst the pandemic, I remain endlessly fascinated by celebrity culture, and how that culture is shifting. The role of celebrities (and influencers) is changing; we don’t need to hear celebrities sing “Imagine,” complain about isolating in their mansions, or hear about how easy it was for them to get a COVID-19 test. We want to see them understand that they have immense privilege — and we want to see them use that privilege. As Amanda Hess wrote in the New York Times, “Among the social impacts of the coronavirus is its swift dismantling of the cult of celebrity. The famous are ambassadors of the meritocracy; they represent the American pursuit of wealth through talent, charm and hard work. But the dream of class mobility dissipates when society locks down, the economy stalls, the death count mounts and everyone’s future is frozen inside their own crowded apartment or palatial mansion. The difference between the two has never been more obvious.”

Hess continues, “If I’m going to pay attention to celebrities at a time like this, their contribution better be charming or deranged enough to distract me from the specter of mass suffering and death.”

And that is exactly the joy of “Saturday Night Seder,” and all the other virtual celebrity celebrations of Passover: charming, with a purpose, and okay maybe slightly deranged (Bette Midler pretending to be Elijah comes to mind as one of the most bonkers moments). “Saturday Night Seder” was a bunch of celebrities, from their homes, recreating the magic of a Jewish holiday — for a worthy cause.

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