In Brooklyn, a Group Effort Begets a Creative, Communal Seder

In Brooklyn, a Group Effort Begets a Creative, Communal Seder


At a Passover dinner hosted by Maria Geyman, the founder of Masha Tea, her family and friends provided the tableware — and the table.

The designer Sarah Nsikak lit the candles to mark the beginning of the Passover Seder at the Brooklyn home of Maria Geyman, the founder of Masha Tea, and her husband, Evan Seftel, a sales manager of the Wyoming resort Brush Creek Ranch.Credit…David Chow

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By Aliza Abarbanel

Just before sunset on the first night of Passover, the sidewalks of Franklin Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, were packed with people toting bunches of tulips, branches of cherry blossoms and other souvenirs of spring. A few blocks away, Maria Geyman and Evan Seftel’s apartment was filled with the scent of long-braising brisket, an aroma so deliciously potent it greeted anyone who opened the building’s front door. Seftel, 36, stood in the kitchen breaking down a huge bunch of parsley. Geyman, 34, sat by the living room windowsill in a frilly bright pink dress, carefully folding printed pages to construct a Haggadah — the book that guides a Passover Seder — and binding them with multicolored washi tape.

Geyman is a naturopathic doctor who, in 2019, launched a line of organic teas and herbal infusions — now sold at the Noguchi Museum and the Ace Hotel, among other places — under the label Masha Tea (for her family nickname). The daughter of Jewish refugees from Kyiv, Ukraine, she immigrated to New York as a baby but, because religious observance was banned in the Soviet Union, only began celebrating Passover three years ago after meeting Seftel, who grew up attending his family’s Seders in his native New Jersey.

“When we started dating, we decided that Passover was going to be our holiday that we host every year,” said Geyman, an intention that took on new meaning when they welcomed their daughter, Mona, in February of last year. Their first Seder as a couple took place in 2021 in the tiny town of Saratoga, Wyo., home to Brush Creek Ranch, a resort for which Seftel serves as a sales manager. “There were no Jews in the town, and no matzo, so I actually baked some,” Geyman said.

Even in New York City, where Jewish holiday staples can be found in just about any supermarket this time of year, hosting a Seder is no small undertaking. In addition to cooking a multicourse dinner, it requires leading a retelling of the Passover story — which details the Jewish exodus from bondage in Egypt — and preparing special foods like a chopped fruit and nut mixture called haroseth. As well as those traditional elements, the Geyman-Seftel gathering, like many Seders, also included creative touches born out of family customs, the tastes and talents of their guests and the realities of hosting a 13-person dinner in a 700-square-foot apartment.

To accommodate all those guests, the couple borrowed a long dining table and benches from their friend Julia Dippelhoffer, a co-owner of the art gallery Journal in TriBeCa, dressing it up with a custom tablecloth appliquéd with Senufo flag-inspired imagery by the artist Sarah Nsikak, another friend who attended the Seder with her husband, Stewart Whitmarsh, a musician and sound engineer. (Nsikak’s studio, La Réunion, also made the napkins, matzo cover and cheerful couch cushions on which guests reclined, as is customary on this holiday.) The ceramist Shino Takeda, a friend of the couple, lent iridescent earthenware bowls and platters from her personal collection. And at the center of the spread stood an ornate Seder plate decorated with scenes from the Passover story. On loan from Seftel’s grandmother Anita on Long Island, it was topped with the holiday’s ceremonial foods, including a lamb shank bone and — because the couple had earlier in the day feared an actual shank would be hard to source — a nibbled-down Popeyes chicken drumstick.

Guests started arriving at 7, with Dippelhoffer bringing the pre-dinner snacks: blush pink radicchio and shaved radishes with a trio of dips — sprouted walnut bagna cauda, sour cream-mascarpone ranch and vegetable top pesto — made by her partner, Andrew Luzmore, the special projects manager at the Pocantico Hills, N.Y., farm-to-table restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Anna Polonsky, who runs the restaurant-focused design studio Polonsky & Friends, and her husband, Fernando Aciar, a ceramist and the owner of the Brooklyn restaurant and co-working space O Studio, came with a chamomile-topped flourless chocolate cake from the East Village bakery From Lucie. Geyman’s sister, Lauren, also a naturopathic doctor, provided homemade coconut macaroons.

“The year is 500 B.C.-ish,” Seftel announced as the Seder began, after which everyone took turns reading passages and prayers from the Haggadah, leaving the table at one point to ritually wash their hands in the kitchen sink. As Aciar snagged the bowl of walnut bagna cauda to use as a dip for matzo, the group burst into a table-slapping rendition of the celebratory song “Dayenu” before the meal was served.

The first course included platters of gravlax made by Geyman’s mother, Svetlana, and served alongside her salat vinaigrette, a traditional Ukrainian dish of cold marinated beets. “These are specialties of hers,” Geyman said. “She almost always has gravlax curing in the fridge.” For the main course, there were creamy mashed potatoes, crispy roasted brussels sprouts and the hulking eight-pound brisket from the nearby butcher, the Meat Hook. All of it disappeared in a matter of moments.

While guests tucked into the macaroons and cake, Geyman made tea: a holy basil ptisan grown in Vermont for those who eschew caffeine and a Japanese black variety sourced from a family farm in Shizuoka for everyone else. The latter was served in a large orange teapot that Geyman’s grandparents brought over from Ukraine and later passed down to her. When she was growing up, she never saw her grandparents use the delicate porcelain set of which the teapot is a part, but reserving family heirlooms for special occasions is not her style. “I’d rather risk breaking them than not using them,” she said.

The search for the afikomen, a piece of matzo hidden earlier in the evening, is the Seder’s grand finale. Margaret Austin, the owner of the Outline clothing boutique in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, and Evan Scott, the retail and merchandising manager at the Noguchi Museum, jumped up to search the kitchen, where Scott found it tucked in the freezer. The winner always gets a prize — in this case, an antelope antler that Seftel had found on a walk in the Wyoming woods. It was hotly coveted, but nobody left empty-handed. The bathtub was packed with freshly pruned clippings from the leafy Ficus Audrey tree in the living room — a 30th birthday gift from Geyman’s parents — allowing each guest to grab a bit of spring on their way out the door. Here, Geyman shares her tips for putting a personal spin on a Passover Seder.

Suggest a Festive Dress Code

Geyman encouraged guests to wear cheerful shades as a nod to the springtime holiday. “I sent some texts that said, ‘Feel free to wear bright colors but no pressure — and obviously if you want to wear black, go for it.’ That’s a nice way to say, ‘Don’t wear beige,’” she said with a laugh. Geyman’s own vibrant dress was by Molly Goddard.

Introduce Your Guests to Something New

“Holy basil is one of my favorite herbal teas to serve,” said Geyman. “It’s not like chamomile in that it won’t make you sleepy. It’s more stabilizing than energizing or tiring, and even if you let it sit for 20 minutes, it won’t turn bitter.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Improvise

When it was time to start dinner, the candlesticks were nowhere to be found. Thinking fast, Geyman cut a grapefruit in two and melted a taper into the center of each half. “Mona, our daughter, loves grapefruit so we always have some in the fridge,” Geyman said, “It’s become a little party trick.”

Lean on Your Friends

“Know your guests’ strengths and have them participate,” said Geyman, whose guests pitched in by bringing food, flowers and even — in Dippelhoffer’s case — furniture. Incorporating handmade touches like Nsikak’s textiles, especially the appliquéd matzo cover made in collaboration with the modern Judaica brand Hayom, made the occasion feel all the more special.

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