NEW YORK (RNS) — Several dozen auto writers disembarked from a chartered bus on Wednesday (April 17) in front of Katz’s Deli on New York’s Lower East Side, identifiable from their New York International Auto Show press badges and business casual attire, and pushed their way through the crowd of tourists to back tables set with seder plates, matzo and haroset.
“Welcome to the sixth annual JAWS Passover seder,” said Russell Datz, national media relations manager at Volvo, using the acronym for the Jewish Auto Writers Society, which Datz founded back in 2013.
“You had lots of events to choose from,” he told the crowd, "so thanks for making the schlep.”
The three media days that kick off the New York auto show, one of the largest and most influential auto events in North America, are grueling for any car reviewer. After spending all day touring carmakers' showrooms in the cavernous Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, writers hop from one evening event to the other to make sure they don't miss any new products or big reveals.
For Jews who cover the car industry, this big-city whirl, which often falls when family back home is gathering for Passover, can be an especially lonesome prospect.
“Whoever schedules the (auto) show must have a seder they don’t want to go to,” joked Jamie Kitman of Automobile Magazine, who has covered the industry for decades.
The Passover seder at Katz’s is a respite. Now in its sixth year, it has also become a mainstay of the New York show — held, as it was this year, just a couple of days before the holiday begins. It has attracted sponsors such as Nissan and Volvo and goes head to head with flashier VIP events thrown by major automakers. It has even caught on with non-Jewish journalists.
“This is the best event by far,” said George Notaras, executive producer of "Moto-Man," a popular YouTube car show. Last year, Notaras turned down a Lamborghini event to celebrate Passover with his Jewish colleagues.
Datz had seen the seder as an opportunity from the beginning, which is when he called Nissan with a proposal for a different kind of auto show event. Nissan has sponsored the seders ever since. (Volvo came on board later but didn't officially participate this year.) Nowadays, Dan Passe, general manager of the global product communications department at Nissan, organizes the event with Datz. The first seder drew only 12 participants; it has grown exponentially since then.
The genius of the Auto Show seder, or at least what draws attendees away from other events, is that it’s a chance to turn off from the industry chatter and sit together, eat good food, and be in community. There’s no explicit business agenda.
Journalists Sue Mead and Kate McLeod came to Katz’s from the Kia event, though neither is Jewish. “I wanted to be here,” said Mead. “The world is troubled now. It’s important to literally break bread” — or matzo, as was the case.
“Auto Show parties have loud music, pulsing lights, and you have to mingle,” added McLeod. “Here, there’s a veneer of spirituality.”
“This seder is the taste of home,” said longtime auto journalist Bengt Halvorson. “It feels like joining family,” especially “after a week that’s so over the top.”
Wendy Orthman, senior manager for communications at Nissan and a self-described midwestern Catholic girl, said she had heard about the Passover event at Katz’s when she worked for other car companies, but this year’s seder was Orthman’s first-ever exposure to Jewish culture.
“Whenever they made me drink,” she said, “I felt like Catholics and Jews are way more similar.”
But the Jewish writers are best positioned to appreciate the offsite event. "It’s the best seder I’ve ever been to,” said writer Evelyn Kanter, because “there’s no family drama.”
The abbreviated ritual portion of the event doesn’t hurt the seder’s appeal either. Jewish holiday meals are known to drag on for hours, but Datz and Passe, playing the role of “co-rabbis,” lead a ten-minute seder, the outline for which fit on a double-sided sheet of paper. “'Let my people go’ is a lot faster in a [Nissan] GT-R,” joked Passe.
First, the two recited the blessing for the wine, then the blessing on the matzo, then they made traditional “sandwiches” of horseradish root and matzo.
When it came time for Dayeinu, one of the holiday's classic songs, they called upon another attendee to sing the song’s refrain. Seder-goers sang along, too, and later dipped their fingers in wine to symbolize the ten plagues.
Datz thanked Nissan for sponsoring the event, pointing out the unbelievable synchronicity, in that they were gathering during the Hebrew month of Nisan – an inside joke missed by most. Once the seder ended, it was time to eat Katz’s deli classics, which included matzo ball, brisket and gefilte fish.
“I look forward to this event more than any other,” said David Wallens of Classic Motorsport magazine. Originally from New York, he now lives in Daytona Beach, Florida, and the seder is the only Jewish communal activity he participates in all year, despite growing up in a Jewish home. Last year, Wallens’ parents met Datz and hugged him for starting the Passover seder that means so much to their son.
“This could only work in Katz’s,” said Passe, a Long Island native who now lives in Yokohama, Japan. “The beauty of the event is that people like pastrami.”