Passover in New York
Lighting the candles for Joan Rivers' Seder. Wednesday, April 12th. Photo: DPC.
New Yorkers were surprised when they walked outside Thursday morning that it was SO warm out. But beautiful. So beautiful you hope ... it stays that way. Although that’s a thought of a cock-eyed optimist.

Wednesday night was the first night of Passover,
the religious ceremony instituted by the God of the Bible to memorialize the time when He delivered the descendants of Abraham out of slavery in Egypt (Chapter 12; Exodus, the second book of the Bible). The celebratory meal is called Seder. I’m not Jewish but many people I know and love are, and one of them, Joan Rivers asked me to her Seder.

Joan Rivers with Brett, the son of Today Show producer Amy Rosenblum

This isn’t the first time I’ve been to Joan’s Passover dinners. I think it’s the third. Joan lives in a very grand apartment here in Manhattan. In its original incarnation it was the ballroom of house built by Horace Trumbauer for the Drexel family. When Joan found it, it was in a state of almost complete ruin.

She’d first seen it from the window of a house across the street when she was moving back here from California and looking for a place to live. On seeing what clearly looked like a desperate house, she asked her broker who told her it was just some old relic where a woman had lived for fifty years and died. Joan thought to herself she wanted a house where a woman could live for long time, i.e., forever. So she looked and she bought.

Since she acquired it, it’s been completely restored and there is a lot of ivory and gilt and mirrors and crystal chandeliers. Maybe Joan was Marie Antoinette in another incarnation. Or Madame de Pompadour. Or how about DuBarry? You never know. She’s very clever, as the world knows, shrewd and creative, loves beauty and the sense of the whim. Although very grounded our little lady is. She’s a wonderful hostess, welcoming and inclusive, and she’s still very young.

I grew up in a non-Jewish family where Christmas and Easter were the big ones, in a small New England town where there were not, to my knowledge (or awareness at the time), many Jewish families. There were the Roman Catholics and the Protestants. And, incidentally, varying prejudices running in either direction. When John F. Kennedy was running for President, there was a widespread popular idea that because he was a Roman Catholic he’d let the Pope take over the country, which meant, of course, that the Protestants would be under the domination of the Catholics. Oy-vey.

A number of years ago I was invited by a friend to her family’s Seder. It was interesting although the food, all of which was traditional for the dinner, was memorable for its overall brownness and dullness. The dinner was solemn but not particularly comfortable because it seemed like they were going through the motions. It wasn’t clear to me what we were doing. Which I suppose is what most religions you’re not familiar with are like in the physical practice.

Joan’s dinner had a solemnity because she is a most serious person. Even in her zaniness. The table was beautifully set with flowers and candles, crystal, china and a blue tablecloth that was probably not meant to be seen in the light of the camera’s flashbulb, but rather as a background color to set of the glitter and shimmer and flora before us.

I don’t know how many of the twenty-four of us were Jewish although I do know there were several of us who were not. If you’ve never been to a Passover dinner, there is a strict tradition as to the meal. Joan explained it as we progressed and it was fascinating to see the similarities between the Christian and the Judaism.

DPC's table setting for the dinner

Then there was the initial meal.

At each place setting, the following was provided:

Parsley (2 sprigs)
Charoseth (1 tablespoon)--Chopped apples, nuts, honey, cinnamon and a touch of grape juice, mixed to your liking.
Grape Juice (4 servings, 3 ounces each)
Saltwater (1 bowl per 4-5 people)--Add enough salt to cloud the water.
Horseradish (1/2 teaspoon and as "biting" as possible)
Matzo (plain, 1/4 square)
At the leaders place setting also provide:
1 bowl of saltwater
1 lamb bone (meatless and oven-roasted until browned)
3 whole squares of matzo and 4 napkins (the matzos are stacked between the napkins on a plate)
1 roasted egg (boil for 10 minutes; then place it under oven broiler until shell is browned)

An extra setting for "Elijah": Same as the "per person" setting with the exception that only one glass of juice is poured and left next to the plate. This symbolizes the future appearance of Elijah, who will signify the coming of the Messiah.

2 candles (white) and candlesticks (in the table center)

Joan she did some improvising. We had red wine for our “sips” not grape juice; and of course there was white wine and champagne for those who wanted it. After Joan explained the significance of the food before us, we began the reading of the Haggadah (which means “the telling”) – a script that contains the words to be spoken and that describes the actions to be taken at a Passover Seder. The Seder obviously varies with the individual, depending on their approach to their religion.

Everyone at the table participated in the reading, partaking throughout. After that the traditional course was served – which is lamb, mashed potatoes mixed with mashed carrots (excellent) and asparagus. At Joan’s place was an extra glass, a silver chalice “in memory of Tommy,” Tommy Corcoran, Joan’s closest friend, shoulder and adviser for many years, who died last year of cancer.

Tony Maltese talking with Pete Hathaway
The floral display

At dinner I asked Joan how she got into the comedy business. I remember her first appearances on Johnny Carson in the late 1960s; she was falling off your chair funny. She’d wanted to be an actress since she was a kid. She never thought of comedy because in those days women comedians were rare, very rare. When she was first out of school, making the rounds for an acting job, she found that writing comedy material came naturally to her and she could earn a few bucks a night. A few bucks. Her first gigs at stand-up were down at the Downstairs and at the Duplex in the Village. Finally she got the shot on Carson.

It was so successful that her manager told her the next day that she’d “have work for the rest of your life.” At that point Joan was just worried about her rent and feeding herself and she was doing a lot of that by working temp jobs. The manager assured her that she’d never have to do that again, that she could earn “at least $300 a week” (for the rest of her life). $300 a week was like a million bucks to Joan’s ears.

That was about forty years ago. It is never uninteresting for me to be a guest of Joan because those memories of the hilarious pleasure of watching her on those early Carson shows are still very clear.

And from this vantage point, I also see an industrious woman who is remains bright and curious, serious in her approach to her performing, her writing, her businesses, her friends and her cultural interests. And still working out her material before packed audiences at the Cutting Room every other Wednesday when she’s in town, as well as all the gigs, appearances and jobs she’s got on her busy schedule.

She’s still the spirit of that very young woman I first saw sitting on the other side of Johnny Carson’s TV desk. And at home there’s also that touch of grandeur – hers; hard-earned and well-earned, the embodiment of the gratitude of Passover.

The Seder table by candlelight and by flash


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April 14, 2006, Volume VI, Number 63
Photographs by DPC/


© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/