By Nadine Epstein
The e-mail invitation came at the last minute. Not that Google didn’t know Passover was on its way, but apparently it would have been un-Google-like to plan too far in advance. So the message arrived just a few days ahead of the special evening: “I would like to formally announce this year’s Google seder, affectionately known as Koogle@Google 2008.”
“Google? seder? Google seder?” you might ask. Not many companies (I can’t think of any others) have an official corporate seder. We’re not talking a Hanukkah or Christmas party but a full-fledged Exodus commemorative night at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, a few miles south of Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley.
It was my first visit to the sprawling campus of the Internet search giant, founded in 1998 in a Menlo Park garage by two Jewish Stanford doctoral students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. In the last ten years, Google has gained near-legendary stature thanks to its hurtling growth—it now has approximately 20,000 employees and stock that hovers near $600 a share—and the one-of-a-kind corporate ethos that has made it a magnet for bright, creative young types.
The seder was held on the fifth night of Passover in Off The Grid, one of Google’s many on-campus cafés—if you can call places where amazing gourmet food is free 24/7 “cafés.” Like many of Google’s buildings, this one was standard California office fare, except for company touches that hit me as soon as I walked in: bright primary colors, exercise balls, massage chair in the lobby. Counters in the anteroom of the café were heaped with nutritious drinks and snacks. My hostess told me airily, “Take whatever you want,” as she greeted chef Todd Koenigsberg, the mastermind behind this year’s seder meal. I was handed a menu, a photocopied Haggadah and a placemat to color.
A band called Za’atar serenaded us with Israeli folk music as the room filled. There were about 135 people—lots of 20- and 30-somethings and no shortage of babies. Even the older folks looked young, this being California.
We sat at rows of white-clothed tables. A young woman wearing jeans, a green T-shirt and a strand of pearls stood at the podium to welcome us. She was Rachel Chodorow-Reich, from the online sales department. Her fellow seder leader was former Googler Joel Finkelstein, introduced as “the son of a rabbi.” He sported a well-worn plaid jacket, jeans and a kippah with a matzo print.
We plunged into the Haggadah, led mostly by Finkelstein, who sang beautifully in Hebrew. He later told me he was brought up “Conservadox” in a family that held serious all-night seders. The Google version was relaxed in comparison. Talk about the freedom to easily access information mingled merrily with the escape from slavery as handsome, healthy servers sped around the room topping off our wine and juice glasses.
The funniest moment came when Finkelstein announced the awards for the afikomen. “Stock options for the kids,” he quipped to the room of Googlers who knew full well their value. “For parents, massages.” Then he dropped the afikomen into a recycled paper envelope marked “Do Not Touch” and cheerfully warned the children not to steal it.
Before the meal, veterans of umpteen seders and those new to sederdom joined to sing a rousing and wonderful chorus of Dayenu, accompanied by drums and forks.
And now we come to the food. Google is rightly renowned for its campus cuisine. All the traditional foods were in the right places on the seder plates, and there were three harosets—a whole dried fruit version from northern Italy called Venetian, a Persian one with dates soaked in sweet vinegar and pureed with walnuts, and a traditional Ashkenazi haroset made with diced apples, wine, almonds and cinnamon. These were followed by Koenigsberg’s homemade gefilte fish, matzo ball soup and platters of a tender brisket made with parsley and horseradish salsa. For those still able to swallow, the waiters arrived with roast chicken, tzimmis “koogle” and Sephardi rice wraps with brown rice, lemon and herbs—everything your mother, Sephardi or Ashkenazi, would have made.
The unleavened desserts, prepared by Off the Grid pastry chef Deirdre Davis, were laid out buffet style in the back of the room. A line quickly formed and take-out containers were passed out for those who wanted to take food and desserts home. That would be everyone. I loaded up on macaroons dipped in chocolate, the most luscious I have ever tasted, and forced myself to skip the orange almond cake, walnut date torte with cream cheese frosting and flourless chocolate cake.
The afikomen was redeemed after quite a commotion. The gang of children who had taken the afikomen had managed to lodge it behind a massive refrigerator that had to be moved to retrieve it. The kids got pop-up frogs and stickers. Then Chodorow-Reich asked if anyone needed a ride home, making the event truly feel like a family affair.
“We really strive to make it interactive,” she told me later. “It’s a balance between a lot of young Googlers who just want to hang out with each other and young families.” Whatever the formula, it worked.
Later, I talked with Charlie Ayers, author of the recently released Food 2.0: Secrets from the Chef Who Fed Google. Ayers was hired in 1999 as Google’s first chef, and as employee number 53 was rewarded with stock options. At the time, Google was located at 2400 Bayshore Parkway in Mountain View which, unlike the garage in which the company was founded, had a small kitchen and dining area. “I noticed we didn’t have a holiday tree in the lobby, but we did have a menorah,” said Ayers, who isn’t Jewish but grew up surrounded by Jews in Parsippany, New Jersey.
“I knew what was expected of me,” he told me. “Sergey wanted me to be able to keep the Googlers on campus, so I created a menu that provided no reason to leave early. I observed what our culture was at the company, and I wanted to meet the needs of my captive audience.”
Ayer’s first foray into Jewish Google cooking came at Hanukkah in 1999, when he served up an array of Jewish holiday foods such as borsht, brisket and his favorite—an orange chocolate matzo torte with layers of orange marmalade and chocolate between layers of matzo and covered with chocolate. “I was so pleased with it; I actually stumbled across the recipe on the back of a box.”
The first seder was held in 2001 after Ayers hired Stanford philosophy student Mirit Cohen, now an executive chef at Google, who planned the meal. (Today the company has some 750 food-related employees.) A large percentage of the staff working the night shift turned out.
“You had people coming who were not of the faith,” he said. “There’s a huge exchange of thoughts and ideas at Google. So you had these guys from Korea and the Middle East coming to experience a seder together. We were all one, no us or them, no Asian, Egyptian, Irish, Italian—just all Googlers.
“I remember there was a guy from China who was in such awe and respect of the Jewish culture that evening. He had no understanding or knowledge of the faith whatsoever prior to that meal.”
Back in those early days Susan Wojicki, vice president of product management (owner of the original Google garage and now Brin’s sister-in-law); Craig Silverstein, Google’s director of technology and first employee; and a former Google engineer, Ron Dolin, led the seders. “Sergey had some of his guests from Stanford,” said Ayers. “We were always big about inviting people to participate and share in our culture.”
The tradition continued when the company resettled in 2003 in the old Silicon Graphics (SGI) campus a mile away, said Ayers, who left Google three years ago. Like many early employees, he is reported to have walked away a multi-millionaire, thanks to those stock options. Upon his departure, the main restaurant on the new campus was renamed Charlie’s Café in his honor.
The company has held on to its humanistic qualities despite its growth, said Ayers, who likes to call Google “the uncorporation.” There is truth to this: Somehow, Koogle@Google 2008 succeeded at being a corporate seder without a corporate sensibility.
Although there were senior Googlers among the seder goers, Brin and Page were not in attendance this year. “They’re so busy and getting pulled in every direction,” said Ayers. “Moreover, they are both married now. I imagine their wives want them home.”
Stay with Moment for more “In the Moment” blogs, featuring editor-in-chief Nadine Epstein and various other contributors. Make sure to also check out Jewish Google recipes.
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