Last Friday around dusk, a group of Russian speakers met near McGolrick Park in Greenpoint. The women were tarted up and the men dressed to the nines in cufflinks, suspenders and derbies. A bald magician, bundled up in a three-piece suit and a black bowtie, made a solemn announcement: “Tonight is not like any other night. Tonight, we will be answering one question: What does it mean to be free?” With that, the small procession followed him to a secret location, where “an immersive live performance” was set to take place.
The invite each of the 30 participants, chosen by lottery, had received earlier that week described the event as “an alternative Passover experience,” created to “take you down the path to freedom.” The Jewish festival, which celebrates the Biblical liberation of Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, will start tonight with its traditional reading of the Haggadah and eating of matzah. But the mysterious soiree, named “Edges and Borders” and promising “music, poetry, movement and a light fare menu,” promised to be quite different from the typical endless Seder.
For the occasion, a disused corner diner had been refashioned and dimly lit in amber. Behind the bar, cooks were already working at full speed when the guests entered two by two. After making a few philosophical pronouncements, the illusionist left the makeshift stage, pretending that he had to attend “another journey.” A waitress served the first of five dishes, skinny potato pancakes, with a glass of Israeli Kosher wine, poured in a blue china teacup. Passover tradition generally requires guests to drink four cups of wine over the course of the dinner, symbolizing the different stages of salvation. The fifth cup, served in honor of the prophet Elijah, is generally left aside. But no such requirement was imposed on that particular night.
While guests noshed on summer rolls, deviled eggs or balsamic baked tofu prepared by Gosha Danilov of Two Tablespoons, artists performed for a few minutes at a time, touching on themes of freedom, conflict, liberation, love and resilience. There were sketches by actors Sergey Nagorny (the magician MC, who also played a police officer, a Russian immigrant and a bum) and Boris Zilberman, electronic music by Svetlana Shmulyan and Dimitry Ishenko with their new band Petits Machins, a postmodern dance number by Dimitri Ivanov, conceptual videos by VJ Fuzzy Bastard, readings by essayist and journalist Marina Rubin, and a bewitching accordion performance by Victor Prieto.
“We wanted to create an experience that would appeal to the universal values of Passover,” said the artist Svetlana Shmulyian, who co-organized the event with Anya Zicer, a curator, actor and producer at the Lost & Found Project, an experimental troupe founded in 2011. Over the past few years, the two women have been involved in activities catering to New York’s Russian-speaking Jews. Born in Russia and raised in Israel, Zicer has been the managing director of FoksbieneRU, the Russian division of the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, since 2012. Shmuliyan, who moved to New York from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, has been part of the underground musical scene for several years, has worked on immersive theater experiences (including Sleep No More), and holds a Ph.D. in psychology at Columbia, where she teaches.
Over 300,000 Russian Jews emigrated to the U.S. after the USSR collapsed in 1991. For most of them, Judaism was nothing but a distant memory, erased by decades of virulent anti-religious state communism and countless outbursts of anti-Semitism. The second generation, who was born in the U.S. or left at a very young age, grew up with a conflicted identity. Many felt the urge to reconnect with their long-lost heritage, but did not necessarily consider religion as the only way to do it. “We both come from a world where people can be allergic to the very traditional and religious definition of what it means to be Jewish,” said Zicer. “We’re trying to break these boundaries by setting a lower barrier entry point. We want to allow people to connect with their own values and interpret the Passover story through different mediums.”
This revival, through arts and culture, caught the interest of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, which encourages an all-inclusive Jewish identity among Jews from the former Soviet Union. Over the past few years, the group has funded several projects that Zicer organized, including the two “Edges and Borders” events (a second soiree took place on Saturday at the same location). “There are multiple ways to be Jewish,” said Zicer. “You can pick and choose anything you want and decide. What we’re trying to show is that it can be cool and hipster and Greenpoint to be Jewish!”
Correction: The original version of this post was revised because it misspelled the name of VJ Fuzzy Bastard.