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JAWS and the New York Auto Show: A Passover Tradition

Automotive journalists party at lighthearted seder during show press days

Each spring, more than a million New Yorkers pass through the turnstiles at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to inspect the latest models at the New York International Auto Show. In the days preceding the public opening, the world’s automotive media descend upon the city for two press days (coverage of which we brought to you here on the AUTOMOBILE website). By day, new models are launched, and executives make speeches. At night come endless receptions, hosted by car companies at restaurants, bars, and hip rental spaces around town.

For reasons unclear, New York’s show has rarely been held on the same day or week in any given year, though it’s always in late March or early April. (This past year’s show was open to the public between March 25 and April 3.) Veteran attendees have noticed, however, that whenever they fall, the press days have been regularly scheduled in conflict with the first two nights of Passover. This recurrent scheduling oversight and its mathematical improbability — Passover is as much a floating date as the show dates are — has been viewed as particularly odd in light of the fact that Jews are overrepresented as a people in New York City and in America’s automotive press corps. “So many Jews, believe me, it’s not huge, it’s Jewge,” said editor for Bloomberg Business Week Sam Grobart, in the manner of Donald Trump.

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Joe Wiesenfelder of Cars.com with Volvo PR man and event founder/sponsor Russell Datz

Adding to the curious situation is the fact that the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association runs the show and everything pertaining to it. Being New York car dealers, the association’s leaders and membership aren’t exactly un-Jewish, which makes it all the more surprising that they would manage to book the press days on a major Jewish holiday – every single year.

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George Notaras of the YouTube channel Motoman TV behind the counter at Katz’s. Notaras is Greek, not Jewish, but is considered an honorary member because of his New York roots and affinity for pastrami.

Trying to right the situation, three years ago born-in-Brooklyn Jewish journalist turned PR guy named Russell Datz set up an event for a jocular Facebook a group he’d founded, the Jewish Auto Writers Society (JAWS.) Not long after, he came up with the idea of an auto show party that would be like a lighthearted seder, held at the venerable Katz’s Delicatessen. “It’s an icon of Jewish heritage — even though it’s not kosher — and you’d never have pastrami or rye bread at a seder. It’s a seder only in name.”

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The JAWS guest sign-in board, just like you’d find at your Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Thrown for journalists but paid for by Nissan and welcoming those of all faiths, it killed several birds with one stone: an event where everyone could lightheartedly pay homage to Jewish heritage while reveling in a car company’s largesse.

Exchanging a tray of roast chicken for some leftover matzoh ball soup at this year’s seder, Autobytel editor-in-chief Joni Gray Finkle from Orange, California, allowed as how “I follow the other Jewish guy, Jesus. But I’m married to a Jew.”

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The JAWS seder, despite not falling on Passover, had a healthy turnout this year.

Volvo, where Datz now works as national manager for media relations, signed on as an additional sponsor last year. As word spread, the number of attendees – Jews and non-Jews – grew to more than 50 this year. Turns out, a free trip to Katz’s compared favorably for many to a night of awkward techno in some sterile warehouse booked for maximum hipness by some not very hip car company. Reflecting on the JAWS event, Eddie Alterman, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver and director of Hearst automotive publications, saw a religious note being struck, too. “To the stranger in your midst, do not shun him. Give him a groaning plate of pastrami and chopped liver.”

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Holly Reich, judge on Women’s World Car of the Year, contributor to Fortune and the NY Daily News among many others, telling the story of the Passover seder with Nissan Senior Manager of Product Communications and co-sponsor Dan Passe.

So enthusiastic was the reception to past JAWS seders that when it was announced that this year’s auto show wouldn’t fall on Passover for the first time in eons, it was decided by Datz and Nissan’s Dan Passe and Dan Bedore to hold a seder during press days anyway. That it happened on the day that also marked the Jewish holiday of Purim only underscored the relaxed religiosity of it all.

“We started with a 70-page Haggadah, which I admit was too long,” Datz confesses, referring to the ceremonial book that tells the Exodus story of the Jews escaping slavery in Egypt. “About five pages in, we were losing them.”

“Too long? That was way too long,” remembered automotive journalist Holly Reich. That first experience led her to come up with a heavily edited Haggadah. Termed by Grobart the “Seder Express,” the revised service clocks in at 10 minutes. But, she adds, “this year they forgot to bring copies of it.” Not that it probably mattered.

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Gefilte fish and matzoh ball soup provided the staple appetizers to the hallowed pastrami.

“Basically it’s like this,” Reich explains. “The participant says, ‘What’s up with matzoh? What’s the deal with horseradish? What’s with the dipping of the herbs? What’s this whole chilling at the table stuff?’ Very modern, off the cuff. And the participants say stuff like, ‘We were slaves in Egypt, blah blah blah.’ And then you start drinking.”

Ordinarily four cups are specified for the Passover celebration, but here, “Take as much drink as you can,” Reich says, “as fast as you want, then you are finished.” Part of the 10-minute service — and almost all guests make it to the end — are spent singing an abridged version of “Dayenu,” arguably Passover’s greatest hit.

Not that there wasn’t a Talmudic level of intensity to the consideration of what became the evening’s question at one table: Why are there so many Jewish car writers in the first place?

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Mike Ballaban of Jalopnik turned Katz’s upside to find the afikomen when he found out the reward was a week’s loan of a V60 Polestar.

Los Angeles-based scribe Aaron Gold speculated that it was because “Jews have an inherent ability to tell a good story. We’re raised with stories. To the outsider, all cars are the same. They’ve got seats and an engine, they get you from point A to point B. We know they’re different, we find those nuances, we find a way to tell stories about them.”

“It’s because we control the media,” quipped fellow auto writer Brett Berk, striking a theme that would be repeated often.

“Jews are overrepresented in the media because Jews can’t become racecar drivers, because we’re too afraid. And our mothers wouldn’t let us hear the end of it,” explained our own road test editor Eric Weiner.

Elana Scherr, an editor for Hot Rod who builds muscle-car engines in her spare time, came from southern California for the show. It was her second JAWS seder. “I always think people are Jews, but some times it turns out they are just nerds. But it doesn’t matter. God, the 10-speed automatic in the new Camaro, kind of the same thing.”

Sam Grobart again: “Jews in this country have always strived to attain a certain degree of success. What is a greater talisman of success than your car? Not everybody sees your house. Your car is the thing that takes you out into the world. It surrounds you, it becomes you. Maybe this notion of wanting to fit in, wanting to succeed, dovetails very nicely with what cars are all about. The glib answer is it’s about mobility, as we’ve been on the run. Passover – we’ve got to know how to get the hell out of here. A car is a pretty good way to do it. The American dream is basically just Exodus without the bad guys.”

“Yeah,” replied Gold. “But think how much shorter it would’ve been if we had sat-nav.”

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