A Mysterious Seder Plate, Different Than All Others

Last Friday night, my family had dinner at my parents’ house and the talk turned to the seder – namely, what exactly was being served, and is kiwi an OK thing to put on the pavlova that’s slowly been edging out the sponge cake as our preferred Passover dessert.  My parents had a cute bickering match about how the food (cooked partly at their house) would be delivered to my house (where the seder will be held) and my dad started foisting hagadot and various silver cups and candle sticks upon me. He picked up the seder plate and studied it before putting it down in front of me— “There’s something weird about it…Look, there is no place for chazeret (bitter herbs) and I can’t make out what this writing says.”

My dad’s Hebrew is better than mine, but my eyes are 28 years younger and my Hebrew school experience is more recent, so I took a look too. I could sort of make sense of a few letters, but couldn’t figure out the whole word. And indeed, indented circles existed for z’roa (bone), haroset, beitzah (egg), maror (bitter herbs), and carpas (spring vegetables), but no chazeret. I tried to rack my brain for our seder plate history, but found it pretty blank.

This seder plate hails from Karlsbad (currently Karoly Vary in Czech Republic), and was purchased by my great-grandmother Hinda Kaplan when she travelled there from her home in Memel (now Klaipėda), Lithuania to enjoy the hot springs there sometime around 1930. We haven’t always used this one— I remember growing up with a seder plate that was opulent and modern and large with every element clearly marked and none missing, purchased from a North American artist but with a hint of blue Middle Eastern ceramic,. But as our family expanded, we started to use a separate seder plate for the little kiddos, and the Karlsbad plate came back into use and emerged as the central seder plate.

In any case, I got home and got to work. I am a historian by training and profession (though of places thousands of miles away from Eastern Europe), and I also have ADHD, and it was Friday night, so it’s not like my kids had to go to sleep right away… cue them gleefully running around the house as I plopped down and scholarly googled. Quick searches of ‘Karlsbad seder plate 1930’ led me to museum holdings and auction sites that helped me compile a sense of the Karlsbadi seder plate scene. There is no doubt some wonderful historian of Jewish material culture who can truly speak to this, but a quick Wikipedia skim and DM with my Jewish historian buddy made me fairly confident in painting 1920’s and 1930’s Karlsbad as rife with tchotchkes for sale to a broad audience of mobile and wealthy Jews who came to this spa town take the waters.. Classic vacation kitsch, replete with Karlsbad scrolled across many of the items on offer. So maybe the missing chazeret and weird other words were evidence of it being kind of a dupe of a legit seder plate? It’s like when I ordered a Ruth Bader Ginsburg menorah off Etsy and it didn’t have a shamash.

It was time to set the family chat on fire. I posted a couple of plates and links for my dad to check out, though we differed in our conclusions. He thought the last few letters spelled out “chazeret,” and I thought it said “Haka’ara.” Neither of us had an explanation for the first three letters, which clearly say seder – samech, dalet, resh. And so, I presented my conclusion:

Me: “I feel like great-Oma bought like a knock off that didn’t have the right number of wells and was missing a word”

My mom: “Would she have realized? Was she literate in Hebrew?”

My brother, who had not been at dinner and thinks he’s funny: “Maybe the engraver had too much Manischewitz”

My Mom: “Schnapps”

I posted on Instagram and Facebook to crowd canvas for ideas/interpretations by other armchair experts more adept than us. My brilliant friend and colleague Dr. Erica Lehrer, who is an anthropologist of Polish Jewry, responded with the Hungarian Jewish Museum’s webpage on Karlsbadi seder plates, which identified them as such:  

“The origin of the Kasrlsbad Sederplates is really striking: the product of Central European intercultural relations incorporating worldly potentats, non-kosher food and flyboy souvenir sellers. The Czech spatown of Karlsbad became really popular among the Jewish visitors and this led to the souvenir sellers mouldering plates originally intended for serving oysters into seder plates by engraved Hebrew inscriptions to fulfill their new potential customers’ needs.”

Bingo! My great-Oma bought tourist tat marketed to the buoyant Jewish crowds, made out of unsellable oyster plates. 

So kitsch it is—but this plate is also an heirloom to descendants of my mother’s Oma Hinda. It was shlepped back from Karlsbad to Memel, but within a decade, it was packed into a suitcase along with everything else my great-Oma thought she and her family would need when they fled Lithuania in July of 1939. They sold most of what they had, kitsch oyster-dish-cum-seder-plate aside, to purchase sketchy visas to farm barren land in Canada, settling near Cornwall, Ontario in the fall of 1939. 

I was so lucky to grow up with my family’s story of exile told to me by my Opa and his sisters, from the Egypt of Nazifying Europe to the freedom of refugee life in Canada. It’s a roller coaster of a story, and was oft-repeated during my childhood, fleshed out with funny stories about interactions with small town Christian neighbours, fun shenanigans on the farm they tended terribly, and stories of poverty and community in post-Holocaust Jewish Montreal. 

But it’s only as an aging adult, with stuff of my own that I’ve dragged across continents, with a household to contend with, with kids to care for, with the solidity of middle-age and the settling into an adult life in a designated place, that I connect more and more to that journey, and to the chaos before it. what must it take to pack up a family and move them, to pick and choose what comes along? The horror of knowing you can’t stay any longer—and the courage to go. As I write this, I just read the news of refugees dying about an hour away from me in the St Lawrence River following the closure last week of an  ”illegal” but functioning port of entry to Canada, which forced this week’s migrants to battle nature and lose. 74 years ago, my mother’s family fled Memel and navigated that same seaway. Here we are generations later, having survived, chuckling over text about a kitschy plate with the wrong text inscribed. 

In every generation we are obliged to tell the story as if we left Egypt ourselves and achieved the freedom of the Exodus, to see the liberation of one generation as the liberation of us all.  I’m glad that this year, at least, there is added nuance and more to tell about the experience of life before our exodus. Before she was a woman who fled, Hinda Kaplan was a woman who travelled, who bought a souvenir to bring back home, because home was still a place to return to. That decades later, her great, great-grandchildren will use it to learn about our collective history. 

If you have a guess about the inscription, though, we’d love to hear it! 

Dr. Rachel Berger is a queer femme, a parent of twins, a historian of the body, and a lover of walks living and teaching in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, where she is Associate Professor of  Modern South Asian History at Concordia University. She writes about these topics, intergenerational trauma, critical Jewish parenthood, and queer life in academic and non-academic venues. She is thrilled to be a part of Lilith magazine’s 2023 “The New 40” cohort for feminist writers over 40. Go find her on Twitter @allthetruthbut or on Instagram @that_rachel_b.