LOS ANGELES—On this Wednesday, April 12, some 30 people will gather in a cramped West Hollywood apartment for the raucous Passover Seder of Jeffrey (Z-Dog) Zarnow, a former producer who now owns the liquor company Starr African Rum. It is, Mr. Zarnow said, a “debaucherous affair” that begins with a “blaring rock ’n’ roll song”—usually by the Foo Fighters, a nod to one guest, Nate Mendel, a bassist for the group. Prior attendees (there’s a waiting list in the event of cancellations) have included actors Matthew McConaughey and Rachel Bilson; Josh Schwartz, creator of The O.C.; and a bunch of executive types who first met and mingled in the CAA mailroom.
“Everyone brings a bottle of wine, and one of the rules is that no one can leave until all the bottles are empty,” Mr. Zarnow said. Besides wine, “milk-and-honey cocktails” are served—honoring the Promised Land, if not Passover per se. Close enough!
Welcome to the Haggadah of Hollywood—a place where Passover is an excuse to orchestrate a production worthy of a credit roll. In this respect, you might say it’s a night not so different from any other night.
For Courtney Kivowtiz, a manager and regular of Mr. Zarnow’s rock ’n’ roll–themed gathering, the tweaked Seder is a benign and beautiful thing—“a group of friends making the most of a tradition,” she said.
“A lot of us growing up went to Seders where we felt it was a bit of a torture chamber,” Ms. Kivowtiz continued. “Because you’re going to read this book, you have to wait to eat the food—basically, your parents have dragged you to one of those family events that isn’t necessarily anything other than a drag.”
Over in the Valley, Woodland Hills, to be precise, veteran TV producer Larry Einhorn’s family-centered, slightly Disneyfied Seder is anything but a drag. The 30-odd guests (comedians Larry David and Sandra Bernhard have been known to drop by) are encouraged to sing irreverent Passover songs set to revamped show tunes such as “Afikomen!” (to the tune of “Oklahoma!”) and “There’s No Seder Like Our Seder” (pace “There’s No Business Like Show Business”; the lyrics are distributed). “We started doing the songs about five years ago,” Mr. Einhorn said, “but even before that, we always had a bit of a lighthearted approach to Seder—without mocking or denigrating the tradition.
“If I was back home at my parents’ house”—in Chicago—“and we did this, people may say this is a little disrespectful. But here—is our group a little more hip? Who knows, but I guess we think so.”
MADONNA: ‘QUITE MOVING’
Certain Hollywood Seders are the stuff of legend. When Roman Polanski was shooting Chinatown and wanted to return to his native Poland in order to celebrate Passover, the film’s producer, Bob Evans, intervened and threw one of his own. The Kiddush was read by Kirk Douglas.
These days, the Passover invitation of note is issued by music mogul Guy Oseary, who lives in Beverly Hills. Guests have included Madonna (Mr. Oseary’s former partner at Maverick Records), comedian Chris Rock, Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and “It” director McG.
“There were previous years where I felt like shit about myself because I wasn’t invited to Guy Oseary’s Seder, but I’m over it,” said Jill Soloway, a Hollywood screenwriter and comedian who wrote for Six Feet Under before it went off the air, and who called Mr. Oseary’s bash “the seminal power Seder.”
Comic actor Jerry Stiller, late of Seinfeld and The King of Queens, customarily breaks matzo on the Upper West Side with relatives and friends, which back in the day included Rodney Dangerfield and Andy Kaufman. But he’s still reeling from the celebrity-soaked Seder he went to in L.A. some years ago; it was probably Mr. Oseary’s, though Mr. Stiller isn’t quite sure. “I went to a Seder that had Madonna,” he said. “It was huge. Madonna read one of the four questions. She would get into it. Then she talked about Kabala and why she was very involved and influenced by it. She was quite moving that night.”
For decades, meanwhile, legendary manager turned real-estate consigliore Sandy Gallin has been drawing the likes of Barbra Streisand, David Geffen and other Malibu majesty for his First Night celebrations. In this town, generally, the only Seders worth doing are on the First Night. Second-night Seders are so … tomorrow.
One exception is the dinner organized by Tom Sherak, a partner at Revolution Studios, who for years has been inviting about 40 industry people to his Calabasas home. “The reason we don’t do it on the First Night is because my rabbi is one of my closest friends, and he has one on the First Night,” Mr. Sherak said. “We try to invite people who might not have someplace to go and who we think would like to be asked, but who wouldn’t ask themselves. It’s like the old adage,” he added gallantly: “You ask a pretty girl to go out, and she says yes because everyone else is too afraid to ask her.”
So far, Mr. Sherak has hid the Afikomen with agent Arnold Rifkin, Blazing Saddles producer Michael Hertzberg and Los Angeles Times movie columnist Patrick Goldstein. Mr. Goldstein “always comes late,” Mr. Sherak said. “When he rings the bell, we think it’s Elijah.” Then there was that glorious year Warren Beatty and Annette Bening showed up.
“You know the part in the Seder where you have to say it in one breath?” Mr. Sherak said, intoning: “‘The father of the father, the mother of the mother …. ’ No one ever did it better than Annette Bening! She got applause.”
CHAROSET SET PIECE
Ms. Soloway, the former Six Feet Under writer, may not be traveling in quite such exalted circles (though her next project stars Anglo-Semite Oscar winner Rachel Weisz), but her holiday will still have a peculiarly Hollywood inflection: Rather than having someone narrate her Seder live, she will open the DVD player and pop in a movie she made for the occasion with her 9-year-old son, Isaac. “We just went and shot it,” Ms. Soloway said. The filming of this Seder script took place near her Silver Lake house, in the Brosnan Caves in Griffith Park. “It totally looks like Ten Commandments land,” Ms. Soloway said. “I think 50 years ago a set designer built the caves there, and when you go there you think, ‘This is every cave I’ve ever seen on every TV show I’ve ever watched.’ It looks totally prehistoric in a cheesy way.”
In the movie Passover with Ronna and Bev, baby Moses is represented by an E.T. doll. “Instead of Moses in a basket, we have E.T. in a strainer,” Ms. Soloway explained. Not at the expense of current pop culture, of course. “When Moses comes in and says, ‘Dad, guess what? I’m a Jew,’ the Pharaoh is like, ‘Not now, I’m watching American Idol.’ And Moses goes, ‘You’re not supposed to be worshipping false idols.’”
Moses gets a better reaction when he reminds his father that Idol contestant Elliott Yamin is also one of the Chosen People.
“I remember Seders were dreadfully dull,” Ms. Soloway said, explaining her endeavor. “I have tedious memories associated with Judaism, so that every chance I get to make it fun, I take advantage.”
Lest all these shenanigans confirm the conventional wisdom that this city is filled with flakes or something: Mr. Zarnow, the rumrunner, stresses that despite the bacchanalian atmosphere, his gathering has properly pedantic underpinnings. Speaking fluent Hebrew, he sticks to the traditional Seder script and insists that his guests do the same. “We do the whole book,” Mr. Zarnow said. “I didn’t want to turn it into a party with no religious merit.”
He did confess that “we skip some stuff, the songs sometimes,” and that “usually the second half of the Seder falls apart because people are having too much fun.”
For many Hollywood goyim, meanwhile, Passover is when the town shuts down. “It’s like dead everywhere,” said one agent of the Christian persuasion. “It’s kind of like being left alone at college when everyone goes home for Thanksgiving. You’ve got nowhere to go.” Once, he was invited to the Seder of a prominent studio executive—a rather catholic affair, for lack of a better word. “It was a mixture of family and kind of like the strays,” the agent said. “It wasn’t super-religious. We ran through the thing in like 10, 15 minutes. It was like, ‘Bless the food, bless the meat—let’s eat!’”
And at least one Hollywood veteran has scaled back and is thinking about a more sober Seder. “The last time I did a big one was maybe 10 years ago,” said producer Peter Guber, who ran Columbia Pictures in the 1970’s. “Once or twice I turned it into a circus, and I felt like it was blasphemous. There were too many business people. The four questions that were asked were: Why don’t I have the deal? Why is this deal not as good as my friend’s deal? Am I going to have a better deal next time? And what can you do about my agent’s deal?
“I realized it had become something other than what it was supposed to be,” Mr. Guber continued, adding that, to him, Passover is now “a spiritual renaissance—something that has personal, emotional meaning to me.”