Wednesday, April 8, 2009

This Year at Passover

Last year I wrote about feminist Passover Seder alternatives, such as an orange representing the inclusion of all genders and sexualities at the table:

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?"

Don't forget to bring an orange to your first seder tonight. And definitely pass along the story of why it's there.

This year at Passover i find myself feeling differently about Judaism and Israel, especially during a holiday that celebrates "freedom" and the story of the Jews' Exodus from Egypt to our "promised land." So much of the story this year is entangled with increased conflict in the Middle East and the basic human rights of the people living there, the Palestinians and Israelis alike. Rights like safety, shelter, food, education...

This year at Passover i am forced to consider the real meaning of the holiday, a time to remember and re-tell the story of my people. At my house though, we've never kept to the haggadah word for word, and even more rarely have we waited to eat until the final blessing. You see, the first night of Passover (tonight) is celebrated by the first seder, a time for families to come together and retell the story of the Exodus and think about how it affects each of us uniquely and the Jews as a whole. To do this we use a haggadah, a short book or pamphlet from which we read prayers, stories, and instruction. My family always tries (and fails) to read through the haggadah in it's entirety and instead we dive into the amazing spread that my mom miraculously creates. Matzah ball soup, chicken (free range chicken the past few years because she's good to me like that), kugel, charoset, apple pie, and lots lots more, all without flour. No one realizes that she spends days, if not weeks, preparing for this event.

My cousin, Mia, sent me an updated haggadah today that her dad found that incorporates feminism and even vegetarianism into the holiday's traditions. This version of the haggadah even includes a poem by Adrienne Rich:

Freedom. It isn’t once, to walk out
under the Milky Way, feeling the rivers
of light, the fields of dark—
freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine
remembering. Putting together, inch by inch
the starry worlds. From all the lost collections.

It also includes an interesting look at the Exodus:

"Passover celebrates freedom, exemplified in the story of our Exodus from Egypt. That story leads our entry into Israel—not exactly a simple redemption tale. Especially not now, as Israelis and Palestinians continue to fight for their mutual Promised Land, and to shed blood in pursuit of its ownership. In light of that situation, some of us may have complicated feelings about identifying with Israel. But “Israel” doesn’t refer only to the Land. “Israel” is the name which was given to Jacob after he spent the night wrestling with an angel of God. Therefore “the people Israel” can be interpreted as “Godwrestling people”—“people who take on the holy obligation of engaging with the divine.”

I've often felt the traditional haggadah was dated and often irrelevant, referencing the importance of sons (not "children" to include daughters) and fearful of the plagues that include lice, frogs, hail, and boils. These don't pose the same threat for us today as they did our ancestors. This updated haggadah urges us to consider the plagues of our time, such as:

Apathy in the face of evil
Brutal torture of the helpless
Cruel mockery of the old and the weak
Despair of human goodness
Envy of the joy of others
Falsehood and deception corroding our faith
Greedy theft of earth’s resources
Hatred of learning and culture
Instigation of war and aggression
Justice delayed, justice denied, justice mocked...

This haggadah also explains the tradition of the orange, "representing the radical feminist notion that there is—there must be—a place at the table for all of us, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. As Jews we constantly re-create ourselves; our symbol is a fruit that carries within the seeds of its own rebirth" and also the importance of an olive, which i had never heard before:

"The final item on our seder plate is an olive. After the Flood, Noah’s dove brought back an olive branch as a sign that the earth was again habitable. Today ancient olive groves are destroyed by violence, making a powerful symbol of peace into a casualty of war. We keep an olive on our seder plate as an embodied prayer for peace, in the Middle East and every place where war destroys lives, hopes, and the freedoms we celebrate tonight."


shrink on the couch said...

I will not participate in a Jewish seder but I will place on orange on my table tonight.

Ed RosenBerg said...

Indeed, perhaps, we all, Jews and non-Jews, should place oranges on our plates.

Everyone is Included

kat said...

really interesting. thank you!

Anonymous said...

Hello! I'm just passing through but I wanted to say that I too love the Velveteen Rabbi's haggadah. It is by far the best haggadah I've found, not to mention most in line with my own beliefs. Thanks for sharing and hag sameach!

Cory said...

I remember, years ago, my ardently feminist cousin jumping up mid-Seder and rushing to find an orange because she had forgotten about it. She explained why it was there and it stuck with me. I was young at the time, but now, no matter where I'm celebrating a Seder, I repeat the story and orange or not, people are interested.

I know some people are reluctant to break with the strictest observance of the Seder tradition, but it is a holiday of symbolism and whether there is an orange or not, simply telling others the story and the reason for the orange makes the point.

Anonymous said...

We add a tamarind to symbolise Jews from India and its diaspora. My partner's family adds a plantain, for the Caribbean diaspora.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the orange and olive explanations. I will incorporate both into my seder tonight.

As a Jew who both loves Israel and is deeply troubled by the conflict; as an expatriate Israeli who recognizes the centrality of Israel - the land - to the Jewish experience; and as one, like you I believe, who would like to make things there different because it matters to us as Jews, I will NOT indulge myself in my so-called conflicted feelings nor wallow in some new age haze in which I am able to somehow deny the significance of Israel to the Jewish people; but rather I will commit myself to constructively contribute to positive change there (not hang my head in shame here) because ultimately my actions and commitment are what will make the difference I think we all hope to see.

Radical Reminders said...

Anonymous at 2:18PM, i LOVE what you wrote, esp about making a difference and celebrating the significance of Israel to Jews. If you have time, drop me an email (, i'd love to talk about some of this with you - i wanted to email you but you didn't leave an address :/ I hope you read this!! :)

Athena Reich said...

totally awesome. thank you for writing this. we just had an awesome progressive passover last night and i read this blog before so I could educate everyone about the orange! thanks

Elana said...

Beautiful post....thank you
We had our first orange this year, thanks to my wonderfully feminist friend who came to our house and introduced us to the custom....thanks for explaining.


Liz said...

great post - a lot of similarities between your seder and the way my mom leads our seders.

happy passover :)

Meg said...

Oh, how I wish I had read this post before our seder.