A second third seder
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A second third seder

Avram Mlotek offers an updated look at the Yiddish classic

Rabbi Avram Mlotek
Rabbi Avram Mlotek

It’s been a whole year.

A year since we grudgingly gave in to such previously unimaginable travesties as tiny seders. Remember? We all were astonished at having gotten to this. We all were trying to figure out how to make sense of this unprecedented microscopic danger.

“Next year, together,” many — most? — of us assured each other, at Zoomed or solitary sedarim.

Well, now it is next year, and we are facing another set of pandemic seders.

As much as it seems that nothing has changed, in fact much has changed. Although last year we couldn’t really imagine time, because it was passing at such an abnormal rate — fast and slow at the same time, molasses and hummingbird time combined — this year we know that it’s ending. Vaccinations are more and more widespread. If we can evade a final disease surge, if the new variants don’t move faster than the needles, next year truly we will be back to more-or-less normal.

But some things that we learned or rediscovered during the pandemic year will stay with us. That well might include the third seder, which was excavated from memory, restarted last year, and set to continue this year, with some changes. (See box.)

The third seder was a 20th-century phenomenon. Created in 1910, peaking midcentury, and then withering as this new one started, it was a celebration of working people and Yiddishkeit; it used the theme of emancipation from slavery, and tied it to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began the night of the first seder in 1943.

It was revived, at the beginning of the pandemic, by one of the preeminent Yiddishist families in the country, the Mloteks, spearheaded by Rabbi Avram Mlotek, one of the founders of Base Hillel, its rabbi in Manhattan, and rabbi in residence at the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan.

Rabbi Mlotek grew up in Teaneck, where his parents, Zalmen, the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, and Deborah live.

Avram Mlotek’s oldest child, Revaya, sings di fir kashes — the four questions — last year.

Last year, Rabbi Mlotek put together a third seder that was both bound and liberated by the pandemic. Bound, in that no one could gather, as they used to do in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, for an of-course-in-person seder; liberated, in that time and space no longer mattered.

Last year, the seder was live.

This year, because artists and performers have learned a great deal, and also because the technology has improved and allows even more miracles, it will be prerecorded, losing in spontaneity but gaining in polish, sophistication, and elegance.

“I have memories of going onstage as a kid for the third seder, singing and performing,” Rabbi Mlotek said. “This year, here I am, a young father myself, and my daughter will be participating.” Rabbi Mlotek and his wife, Yael Kornfeld, have three children, an 8-, a 4-, and a 1- year-old. His oldest, Revaya, a third-grader, will sing at the seder. “We have a kids choir from Melbourne, Australia, who will sing di fir kashes — the four questions — and Ravi will join them,” Rabbi Mlotek said.

“Last year, it was a collective effort,” he continued. “This year, it will be a real international affair.”

Last year, the seder was a fundraiser for the United Community Center of Westchester, for which it raised a significant amount of money. This year, it’s a production of the Meyerson JCC, and it has more than 20 Yiddish world sponsors.

The performers are a list of big names from that world. “It’s a real international affair,” Rabbi Mlotek said. The Melbourne choir is a logical group for him to recruit. He and Ms. Kornfeld spent the first few years of their marriage in Australia, as shlichei tzibur for Shira Hadasha Melbourne, an “inclusive Orthodox community,” according to its website, in that far-distant city. Some of the performers are in Ireland and Berlin, in Canada and Brazil, and of course Israel.

Most of the performers are white Jews; some are Black Jews, and some Black non-Jews, including Elmore James, who has sung for years at Zalmen Mlotek’s Soul to Soul Folksbiene concert to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The three Mlotek siblings, Avram, Sarah, and Elisha, stand together; they’re all working on the third seder.

“The idea is that we all are connected,” Rabbi Mlotek said. “We need each other. The story of the Exodus from Egypt is the most ancient story there is, and it is the story that African Americans turned to year after year in their struggle for freedom.

“It is the same struggle — we think so and they think so. This is an attempt to understand our own short lives. Thank God we have music and song to accompany us.”

Rabbi Mlotek’s sister, Sarah Mlotek, who made aliyah, will “sing a song by my great-aunt Malke,” he said, and his brother, Elisha Mlotek, is editing.

“Everyone is trying in their own way to make meaning of this time,” the pandemic time, Rabbi Mlotek said. For him, this seder “is my mishpocha — family — and it is my yerusha — my heritage. It is what connects me to my grandparents, the Mloteks”  — Joseph and Eleanor Chana Mlotek, prime movers in the Yiddish world. “My grandfather was the convener of the third seder for the Arbeter Ring,” the group that until recently went by the English name Workmen’s Circle but now is the Workers Circle. “That is part of what connects us all.”

He is working on a children’s book, to be published by Ben Yehuda Press in both English and Yiddish, called “Passover in a Pandemic.” “It’s about a little girl who has to process this time,” he said. “Her bubbe is a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and they are connecting virtually. They realize that they are able to persevere, to last just a little longer than they thought they could.”

So do we all.


Who: Rabbi Avram Mlotek and a large cast of performers from around the world

What: Invite everyone to the second year of the newly revived third seder

When: On Sunday, March 21, from 2 to 3:30 p.m.

Where: Online, of course, through the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan

How much: Free

How to register: Go to mmjccm.org/third-seder

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