Gustav and the Rugrats by
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The Redwood Symphony is an ambitious community orchestra, based in Silicon Valley, that never shrank from a challenge. Under the baton of Maestro Eric Kujawsky, its repertoire extends into territory that most community orchestras fear to tread, such as the cycle of symphonies by Gustav Mahler. But the challenge they attempted in spring 1999 would prove daunting even for most professional orchestras: Mahler’s epic Eighth Symphony, nicknamed “Symphony of a Thousand” for the prodigious forces required: an augmented symphony orchestra, seven vocal soloists, a children’s choir, and not one but two four-part adult choruses, which sing almost nonstop over the hour and twenty minutes of the work’s two movements. For that reason it’s rarely performed, so when Patti and I were recruited to sing in the chorus, we (like most of the other singers) were learning it from scratch.

Virtual Seder like it's 1999.

The performance was in early April, and one required rehearsal conflicted with the first night of Passover. No big deal to Patti and me, but it mattered to our friends Peter and Janet, who played oboe and cello in the orchestra, respectively. They would otherwise have been celebrating Seder with their four-year-old son Michael, who instead was home with a sitter.

Michael was a big fan of the Rugrats cartoons, which gave Peter and Janet an idea. So at our rehearsal break, the four of us clustered together in the “band room” and called their sitter at home. (So those of you who celebrated virtual Seders in this year of COVID-19: we had you beat by 21 years.)

Our Haggadah for the evening was Let My Babies Go!, a children’s book in which the Rugrats imagine they are Moses, Miriam, Aaron, the Pharoah, and all the other Passover characters. Based on an episode of the cartoon show, it attempted to retell the Passover story within the attention and comprehension span of a preschooler.

Our break was only 20 minutes, so we had to move fast. The details are a little fuzzy at this point, but I remember we recited the blessings over wine, bread, and our gathering. We drank at least one cup of wine (or was it grape juice?) and ate a “Hillel sandwich” of matzo, haroset (fruit and nut paste), and bitter herbs. Michael asked the Four Questions (their daughter, with whom Janet was pregnant, being a tad too young). We sang Dayenu, with Patti and me trying our best to conserve our voices.

We raced through the Seder, struggling to hear and be heard through the tiny speaker of a ‘90s-era cell phone over the din of musicians practicing their parts. I marveled at how many of the highlights we could include, and how, with the book’s help, we actually captured the essence of the story in such a short time. (Too bad the Rugrats weren’t around when my grandfather was conducting his four-hour all-Hebrew Seders!) And by the time a bell rang and we made our way back to rehearsal, sated with matzo and grape juice (or was it wine?), we had all learned an important lesson (as Dave Barry did not say):

Gustav and the Rugrats would be a good name for a rock band.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Tags: Passover, Gustav Mahler, Rugrats
Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. Wonderful John, I got caught up in the tempo and was breathless by the end of your tale of a unique Seder indeed!
    Mazel tov!

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Love it! Particularly the name. Indeed, good name for a band. What ever happened to those Rugrats anyway?

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, Betsy. Not having children, I actually didn’t know much about the Rugrats until the Seder. Were they part of your kids’ media culture?

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        Yes, John, they were. At least for one of them, I think David. Dan did a lot of consulting for Nickelodeon at some point in his career (I think when David was about 2 or 3 years old) and came home with lots of goodies from TV shows they created, including Rugrats stuff, so David became a huge fan. I believe the show had faded by the time Jeffrey came along, at least in our household.

  3. Suzy says:

    Great story, and you were indeed ahead of your time! Did Peter and Janet have a copy of the Rugrats Haggadah with them at the rehearsal, or did they rely on the babysitter to do the reading? Either way, pretty amazing. Sounds like one of the best seders ever! Now I want to get my hands on a copy of Let My Babies Go!

  4. Marian says:

    That’s adorable, John. What I’ll miss most this year is the Hillel sandwich. A bit too much work. It’s wonderful how you used 1990s-era technology to connect!

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    What a delightful story, John. You were definitely ahead of your time. Because I also suffered through my grandfathers’ long and incomprehensible seders, we tried to make them short and fun when our kids, and then our grandkids, were young. Wish we had known about Rugrats.

    • John Zussman says:

      Thanks, Laurie. I honestly hadn’t thought about my grandfather’s endless seders in years, until I wrote this story. He would sit at the head of the table davening, mumbling the prayers almost under his breath, while the rest of us rolled our eyes and snuck bites of matzo. Our seders shortened considerably after he passed away.

  6. A wonderful story, John, and deceptively simple. Isn’t it amazing how we humans manage to find creative ways to cope with and even rise above circumstances when necessity becomes the mother of invention!?

  7. Loved this, John! The minds-eye picture of y’all huddled around the phone to “save” a tradition in both ancient and modern styles….Thus humanity moves forward, hopefully soul intact!❤️🦋

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