Monday, April 21, 2008

An Orange on the Seder Plate

Saturday night marked the start of Passover. For us Jews, Passover means staring at a set table for an hour while going through the Seder, eating incredibly gross looking gefilte fish, and not being allowed to eat any fermented grain products for a week (ie bread, pasta, grain alcohol, anything leavened, etc). Passover also means retelling the story of the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt, matzah-ball soup (yum!), remembering back to the days we searched for, found, and got payed for finding the Afikomen, sharing laughs and songs with family and friends, and eating and drinking, a lot. The message of Passover is freedom and ending of persecution, this is a message not unique to the Jews but rather one we should all share and strive for. Passover is the festival of freedom and as such, i write about it here.

I spent the first night of Passover at my parents' house. My mom always makes enough food to feed a small army, even though there are usually no more than a dozen guests. It's an ongoing joke that after everyone is fed, one of the wise-ass children says to my mom, "I am still hungry, maybe we can order a pizza?" No one leaves hungry and no one leaves empty handed. Dinner at my parents' house is always a feast, full of delicious traditional Russian food, good compay, and a little political controversy (they're mostly Republicans... i know, i know) ;)

D and I attended Second Seder at my brother and sister-in-law's new place in Brooklyn :) They recently moved and we were their first house guests! We had an amazing time taking the puppies to swim and play in at the dog beach in Prospect Park and absolutely fell in love with their house! NYC was wonderful but Brooklyn is just as good PLUS so much more spacious, green, and family oriented. Oh and Beans met his twin at the dog run, it was uncanny how similar he and Henry the Beagle/Pit bull mix looked.

Ok, i'll finally get to the feminist part is all this :) I swear it's all sort of relevant! I had the wonderful honor of bringing the orange this year for my brother and sister-in-law's Seder. And here, in the story of the orange, lies the feminist relevance to my ramblings.

Susannah Heschel
, a leading feminist scholar, is the woman responsible for popularizing the custom of an orange on the Seder plate. The story goes that during one of Susannah Heschel's lectures at a synagogue in Miami, an elderly rabbi stood up and said, "A woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on the Seder plate." "To show support for the changing role of women in American Jewish society, the tradition of placing an orange on the Seder plate began, and Heschel became a household name at many Passover celebrations around the globe."

But don't be fooled... this isn't the actual story of the orange. In the early 80's a feminist Haggadah instructed that Jews place a crust of bread on the Seder plate to represent marginalized Jews, particularly Jewish lesbians and gay men, in the Jewish community. Although Heschel liked the notion of reintroducing oppressed groups into Passover, she did not agree that the symbol should be bread. Heschel felt that by putting bread on the Seder plate we would be indicating that gay men and women are violating Judaism like leavened foods (the bread) violate Passover. Heschel instead chose an orange to symbolize the inclusion of gays and lesbians (as well as others who are marginalized and oppressed within Jewish law and tradition). Heschel chose an orange for two reasons: 1. to symbolize the "fruitfulness of all Jews" (aka it's better when EVERYONE gets a chance to participate, and everyone benefits when all are included) and 2. the seeds, as they are spit out, act as a symbol of the homophobia and discrimination we are protesting.

Additionally, Heschel was more than a bit (rightfully) peeved when the story about the elderly male rabbi began to circulate because (she writes) "somehow the typical patriarchal maneuver occurred: My idea of an orange and my intention of affirming lesbians and gay men were transformed. Now the story circulates that a man said to me that a woman belongs on the bimah as an orange on the seder plate. A woman's words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn't that precisely what's happened over the centuries to women's ideas?"

Next year, don't forget to bring an orange to Seder and especially to talk about the importance of including and celebrating all people in religion and traditions.


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The Girl Detective said...

This is wonderful! I never knew that the elderly rabbi story was a myth. Thanks for sharing this.

GottabeMe said...

What a great story, thanks for sharing this!

Sarah J said...

that's a beautiful story.

sadly, with the death of my grandparents, I no longer have a seder to attend. My sister defected to christianity, and I don't have a jewish community that I'm a part of.

but I keep wanting to keep those traditions alive for me and my hypothetical kids, and this story is another one that reminds me of this.

Maybe I need to find that community again.