(Published March 29, 2022 for April 2022 eZine)
This month, the Jewish members at the JCC will celebrate Passover with family and friends. For most, that means celebrating at least one night of the Seder ritual – coming together to eat, laugh and share in the Jewish tradition. For the Cohen family, that is no different.
JCC board member Jeff Cohen and his wife Jen, along with their two kids, Gracie and Isaac (Izzy), host a Seder every year on the first night of Passover. “Our house is almost 100 years old,” said Jeff. “Our dining room has a big, big table and we love to fill it with family and friends. So, Passover is a big deal to us.” Passover, first and foremost, is supposed to be a celebration of Jewish liberation. During Passover, it isn’t uncommon to celebrate with friends or family from outside the Jewish faith. “We make a point of doing that,” Jen said. “Our friends love to come and share our holidays with us. It’s very inclusive.”
The inclusivity at the Cohen Seder goes much deeper than the invitation itself. When it comes time to read the Haggadah (the Passover prayer book) aloud at the Cohens’, the book is passed around for anyone to read. When it comes time to eat, everyone gets fed. When it comes time to share stories, anyone can speak.
The Cohens have taken extra precaution so that their celebration is fun for everyone. “We’re very social,” Jeff said. “We love to entertain and we have friends who are Jewish and non-Jewish come and participate in the Seder.” The family started using the children’s version of the Haggadah back when their kids went to Congregation Beth-El Zedeck’s preschool. The family still uses the children’s book for their celebrations to this day. “Everyone’s welcome at our place, and it’s fun to have friends who aren’t Jewish sit around the Seder table, fumble their way through the Hebrew and just have fun with it.”
The Cohen family’s Seder traditions, much like any other family, are unique to them. For their tablescape, Jen sets out Seder plates that were crafted by Gracie and Izzy when they were younger, and a vintage midcentury matzah tray from 1970s Israel. According to Jeff, “Jen sets a beautiful table,” but her claim to fame around this time of the year is usually matzah toffee, a sweet treat made by covering the flat cracker with chocolate and/or caramel. “Our kids shared the toffee with their friends, so now over the years their friends start to ask me, usually anytime there’s a Jewish holiday coming up, ‘Is this the holiday for matzah toffee?’ I actually started making it for Chanukah also.”
The tradition of storytelling is probably one of the most popular at the Cohen house. Jen remembers when her father-in-law read stories to Gracie and Izzy when they were younger. “He read the plagues with a lot of drama,” said Jen. “I’ll remember the way the kids used to look up at him when he said things like ‘blood’.” Jeff has carried on the tradition of the dramatic reading of the plagues and making people laugh. Now that the kids are older and can invite friends of their own, the storytelling has been more equally distributed. “We like to tell stories and go around the table, and everyone gets the chance to read if they want to,” Jeff said.
This year’s Passover celebration is the first since vaccinations became available to the public on a mass level. For the Cohens, the 2021 celebration was particularly small in comparison to past years; one of the heads of the table was actually a TV with a Zoom call projecting family and friends. This year, the Cohens won’t have a remote option, but they will have a full table once again! The couple is excited to host friends and family, Jewish or non-Jewish, again this year. “Whoever’s here, we want them to have fun,” said Jeff. “No one gets put on the spot. We try to make it fun for our kids and their friends, and for our friends and neighbors.”