In addition to being a time of remembrance, Passover is a holiday for special foods, special dishes and family heirlooms, notably the seder plate. The most common is 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.
There is maror and chazeret, the bitter herbs — perhaps a romaine leaf, a hunk of horseradish or a shoot of green onion. There’s charoset, that sweet mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine. Karpas, usually parsley or celery, dipped into a bowl of salt water. Zeroa, a roasted lamb or goat shankbone. And beitzah, a roasted hard-boiled egg. The plants recall the misery of slavery; the animal products commemorate the sacrifices made at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Any plain, unadorned plate can also fulfill this function, but 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.
Among them is Laura Cowan, a Judaica designer based in Tel Aviv. Her elegant, square-shaped Moon seder plate contains six lunar-like craters and draws inspiration from the 1960s space race. “I used the aesthetics of moon craters and created gentle dips on a solid sheet of polished aluminum to create a modern seder plate that combines a geometric and organic look,” Cowan said.
Another of Cowan’s seder plates was inspired by the gentle curves of desert dunes, “reminding us of the exile from Egypt through Sinai.” The artist cites a concept in Judaism called hiddur mitzvah — a directive to make a mitzvah beautiful, “creating aesthetics that encourage us to practice Jewish rituals,” Cowan said.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles said the reimagining of the seder plate falls in line with the Jews’ long history of crafting beautiful and ornate menorahs, Kiddush cups, tzedakah boxes or Shabbat candleholders.
“It’s true that they technically could be ordinary and mundane and merely functional,” Leder said. “But we have at least a 2,000-year history of artistic embellishment, as a way of showing our commitment, and joy, really, of celebrating these festivals and obeying these commandments. So the seder plate is part of that larger story, of making the commandments more beautiful and enhancing them with our artistic abilities.”
Leder’s own family uses the Villeroy and Boch Precious Legacy seder plate, a replica of a seder plate designed in 1900 for the world-famous exhibit of Judaica in Czechoslovakia. The object was later looted by Nazis for a museum conceived by Adolf Hitler to show the lost culture of the Jews. The porcelain plate has a delicate pattern of blue and white flowers and birds, with six heart-shaped recesses surrounding a Star of David.
“I like to use it because, in the end, of course, we know Hitler lost and wasn’t able to eradicate the Jews, just as Pharaoh wasn’t able to eradicate the Jews,” Leder said. “So, for me, it’s a perfect seder plate, because it’s making this very old story new again.”
Yet the act of redesigning the seder plate is not merely an aesthetic exercise. It can also provide a way of recontextualizing the liberation story for modern times. “The idea of reinventing ritual is intrinsic” to Passover and to Judaism, said Lori Starr, executive director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. “And 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.”
The Contemporary Jewish Museum held an artist invitational show in 2009 titled “New Works/Old Story: 80 Artists at the Passover Table.” The more radical interpretations of the seder plate went well beyond functionality. Harriete Estel Berman created a four-sided pyramid plate using recycled materials, such as tin cans and bits of steel appliances. She attached pictures of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, suggestive of a more recent Exodus. Another seder plate included a holographic projection. Others were made of wood, paper, glass, even linen and thread.
Besides those one-of-a-kind plates, there are many other contemporary seder plates to choose from. Pamela Balton, director and buyer for Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, said technological innovation is driving some of the new designs.
“There is specifically a lot of laser-cut metal,” Balton said. “And I think as the technology develops, that technology is being used to make some of the seder plates.” So expect a 3D-printed seder plate any day now.
New York ceramicist Isabel Halley opted for a simpler, minimalist look. She designed a plate and six bowls out of glazed white clay with gold edges, the texture dimpled using a traditional pinch pot method. She was inspired to create a seder plate after she searched for contemporary designs online and felt underwhelmed by her options.
“I can never get over the symbolism,” Halley said. “A bone, to me, is such a cool thing to have in a religious tradition. So I can’t ever believe when I look at these seder plates that nobody’s doing anything to take away or add to it. I feel like all the Jerusalem seder plates take away from the symbolism, and it’s nice to do something more simple.”
The Futura seder plate, created by New York designer Jonathan Adler, is an abstract, modernist take on the traditional plate, made of glazed porcelain with real gold accents.
“I’ve always been very inspired by the architecture of churches and synagogues, particularly the organic modernism and brutalist style of reform temples,” Adler said. “Religious design is always a bit groovier and more over-the-top than normal old design. I tried to channel the spirit of modernist temple design in the Futura seder plate.”
The seder plates also reflect changes in social values. While Jews have long fought for the inclusion of ostracized groups, in the early 1980s, Rabbi Susannah Heschel added an orange to the seder plate to signify the inclusion of lesbians and gay men in synagogue life.
Designer Michael Aram reflects this in a seder plate that includes seven stainless steel pomegranate-shaped bowls connected by a branch, with the extra bowl meant to hold the orange. “Pomegranates have a vast historical significance and meaning, and my incorporation of them into the seder plate design is an extension of the orange’s sense of inclusion that pays homage to my own traditions and symbolism,” Aram said.
“The seder plates created by contemporary artists today will become family heirlooms passed down to future generations,” Leder said. “These ritual objects become as much a part of the holiday as the foods, the music and the people themselves.”