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Contemporary ArtJewish Culture & Ideas

New Works/Old Story: 80 Artists at the Passover Table—The Dorothy Saxe Invitational

Feb 27, 2009–Jun 2, 2009

Continuing its long-standing tradition of engaging artists from myriad backgrounds to rethink, reshape and redefine traditional Jewish ritual objects, The Contemporary Jewish Museum has invited eighty leading local and national artists to creatively explore the meaning and form of the Passover seder plate.

about the exhibition

Passover is perhaps the most celebrated Jewish holiday and the seder, a home-based ceremony and meal, occurs on the first night of the eight-day holiday. At the heart of this ritual is the seder plate that holds the various ritual foods that symbolize the holiday. The seder commemorates a key event in Judaism: the redemption of the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt. In contemporary times, the Passover seder has more broadly come to represent themes of renewal and rebirth, freedom from oppression, and social justice and activism. Participating artists are encouraged to interpret the traditional object from a contemporary perspective, exploring its ongoing relevance and universality.

Recently, the invitational was renamed The Dorothy Saxe Invitational in honor of Museum Trustee Dorothy Saxe, a highly regarded and nationally recognized collector of art and crafts. Through the naming of the Invitational, Mrs. Saxe’s interests, passions, and legacy will be perpetuated by inspiring new generations of artists and collectors to invest in the creativity of artists and to make Jewish values and ideas relevant, meaningful, and accessible to audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

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the passover story

After many years of living peacefully in Egypt, the Israelite population had become plentiful, and a newly enthroned Pharaoh began to fear their increasing power. To undermine their growing strength, Pharaoh oppressed and enslaved the Israelites, forcing them to build cities and idolatrous monuments in his honor. Despite their enslavement, the Israelites continued to grow in number, prompting Pharaoh to issue an order: kill all newborn Israelite sons.

Rather than surrender to this brutal order, one Israelite mother decides to hide her baby, Moses, in a basket on the banks of the Nile River. Pharaoh's daughter discovers Moses and raises him in the palace as an Egyptian. Growing up, Moses becomes aware of his Israelite background and begins to stand up to the Egyptians' cruel treatment of his people. God chooses Moses to lead the Israelites and plead with Pharaoh for their freedom. Moses continually asks Pharaoh to "let my people go," but Pharaoh refuses. In retribution, God inflicts nine harsh plagues upon the Egyptians. After each plague, Pharaoh relentlessly refuses to let the Israelites go. Finally, God sends the tenth plague: the killing of the first-born son in every Egyptian home.

To protect the Israelites from this plague, God commands them to smear the blood of a sacrificed lamb on their doorposts so that the Angel of Death will know to "pass over" their homes, hence the name of the holiday. With Pharaoh's army in pursuit, the Israelites flee to the sea where the waters part, allowing them to cross safely. The waters quickly flow together again, drowning Pharaoh's soldiers. Before the Israelites flee Egypt, God commands them to quickly eat a meal of roast meat, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread. This first Passover meal, eaten in haste by the Israelites as they fled Egypt, is the basis of the matzah, bitter herb, and roasted shank bone found on the seder table during Passover.

The story of Passover is found in the Bible in the Book of Exodus.

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the Ten plagues

In the Passover story, God sent ten plagues down upon the Egyptians to convince Pharaoh to "Let my people go." Only after the tenth plague, the slaying of the first born, were the Israelites able to flee Egypt. When the ten plagues are recited during the seder, it is customary to spill a drop of wine at the mention of each, to symbolically lessen our joy because our freedom was gained at the expense of human suffering. The plagues are: blood, frogs, lice, beasts, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and slaying of the first born.

the four questions

The Four Questions are a central part of the seder, which is designed to be participatory. Recited or sung early in the ceremony, usually by the youngest child at the table, they set the framework for telling the Exodus story. 

The Four Questions are introduced with this:

"Why is this night different from all other nights?"

The questions and their answers can be explained as follows:

Why do we eat matzah?

When the Jews fled Egypt they didn't have enough time for their bread to rise, so the unleavened matzah is eaten as a reminder.

Why do we eat bitter herbs?

To remind us of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt.

Why do we dip twice?

We dip the karpas (green vegetable), a symbol of renewal, in salt water to remind us of the tears shed by the slaves in Egypt. We dip a second time, the maror (bitter herbs) in the haroset (sweet fruit-and-nut paste), to show that the bitterness of Egypt has been sweetened.

Why do we recline at the table?

We recline as a symbol of freedom.

new passover traditions

The Passover ritual has inspired a great deal of innovation, perhaps more than any other Jewish holiday. Many seder tables today include a Miriam's cup, in addition to the Elijah's cup, to honor the contributions of women and the role of Moses's sister Miriam in the Passover story. This cup is filled with water, to commemorate the well that, thanks to Miriam, provided fresh water to the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness.

Another innovation is the addition of an orange to the seder plate in solidarity with women's inclusion and full participation in the seder ritual and all areas of Judaism. (A number of the works in the exhibition have a spot for an orange.)

Vegetarians who do not want to include a shank bone on their plate may substitute a roasted beet. Some seder participants will add their own symbols of slavery, bitterness, liberation, freedom, and springtime renewal.

New rituals may be included in the Haggadah, the text for the Passover seder. Today there are numerous different Haggadahs-traditional, feminist, vegetarian, and interfaith, to name a few. Some families create their own Haggadahs by piecing together texts (often using online resources), songs, stories, and prayers of particular meaning to them.


The Dorothy Saxe Invitational, New Works/Old Story: 80 Artists at the Passover Table, is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum with lead support from Dorothy and George Saxe, and additional support from The National Endowment for the Arts, Siesel Maibach, and Roselyne Chroman Swig. Lead Inaugural Year Exhibition Support: Koret Foundation Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture.

Image Credit

Header image: Lanny Bergner, Bronze Mesh Seder Plate, 2008. Gallery photos: Installation views of New Works/Old Story: 80 Artists at the Passover Table—The Dorothy Saxe Invitational, on view Feb 27—Jun 2, 2009 at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Photo credit: Ben Blackwell