By Ellen Wexler
Alan Alda is not Jewish—though many think he is. In 2009, Alan Alda made our list of top ten non-Jews often misidentified as Jews. The actor, known for playing Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce on M*A*S*H, grew up Catholic, raised by an Irish-English mother and an Italian father.
But Alda’s wife, Arlene, is Jewish—and over the years, he has learned a great deal about Jewish culture and tradition. Luckily, Alda is insatiably curious. He loves to ask questions, and he is unsatisfied with flimsy answers. And that goes for everything—including the history of Passover.
Moment recently spoke with Alda about his life, his career and his relationship to Judaism. The full interview is coming soon—but in the meantime, read about his Passover traditions below.
What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?
Passover. Passover’s like Thanksgiving. People sit around and eat and drink and tell stories, are glad to be alive. I like that.
Do you celebrate Passover?
We often do, though not every single year. A few years ago, I was at a seder, and I said to the host, “How do you think the seder has evolved over the years?” And he said, “What do you mean, ‘evolved?’” I said, “Well, it must have started out one way and grown over the years. Don’t you think?” He said, “The seder is the seder. It didn’t evolve.” We were reading from Manischewitz’ Haggadah, and I thought: Before it got to Manischewitz, I think it must have been something else over the years.
I did research, and at the next seder, I had written a Haggadah that we all worked from. It didn’t necessarily go through the events of the seder, the order of the seder, but it talked about the origin of each of those events, and how much of it goes back to the Greek occupation of what’s now Israel, and why there’s a pillow, and why they recline, and what the Afikoman once was and what it became. It’s very interesting. The Jews who were often at our seders who hadn’t been to seders in a long time were really interested in this, because it connected them to the evolution of the holiday. I’m really glad I did it. It was a fascinating project.
Do you still use that Haggadah? Will you be using it this year?
No, we haven’t used it in a few years. Lately, our daughters have their own Passover dinners, so we let them run it.
Do you have a favorite Passover food?
The thing is, there’s hardly any dish in the Jewish recipe book that I don’t love. So it’s hard to pick a favorite. Sometimes, to pass the time on M*A*S*H, we’d say: “Okay, what’s your favorite ethnic food? Italian? Irish? Jewish? How many dishes can you identify that you love the most?” And the Jewish foods always came out ahead. There were more things that you could love. Kasha varnishkes, I’m crazy about.
I don’t like chopped liver, I’m sorry to say—I hope that doesn’t get me off the list of supposed Jews.