the candles for Joan Rivers' Seder. Wednesday, April 12th.
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
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.
Rivers with Brett, the son of Today Show producer
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
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
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
would be under the domination of the Catholics. Oy-vey.
A number of years ago I was invited by a friend to
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.
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
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
2 candles (white) and candlesticks (in the table center)
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.
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.
Maltese talking with Pete Hathaway
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
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
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.