The Orange on the Seder Plate
By FRANCINE KLAGSBRUN
THE WOMEN'S PASSOVER COMPANION
Women's Reflections on the Festival of Freedom
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Tara Mohr, and Catherine Spector.
302 pages. Jewish Lights. $24.95.
THE WOMEN'S SEDER SOURCEBOOK
Rituals & Readings for Use at the Passover Seder
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Tara Mohr, and Catherine Spector.
336 pages. Jewish Lights. $24.95.
Women's seders have become a phenomenon of our time. From
New York to Nebraska, from Berlin to London, thousands of Jewish women
throughout the world celebrate the Passover holiday every year with an evening
of ceremony and remembrance led by women for women. For most participants,
these gatherings supplement traditional family and community seder meals that
honor the festival. For some, a women's seder is the only connection to
Passover observance. For all, this special ritual provides a venue for women's
voices to be heard and their experiences commemorated.
But why? Why a women's seder when the traditional Passover
seder includes both women and men? Why a separate seder, when women have by now
won the battle to be integrated into all aspects of Jewish life, from serving
as rabbis to leading major communal organizations? The editors of these two
volumes confront that question in the first section of The Women's Passover
Companion. An anthology of essays and reflections by female rabbis,
scholars, political leaders, writers and artists, the book delves into the
history of women's seders and analyzes Passover themes as they relate to
women's lives today.
In "The Continuing Value of Separatism," Judith
Plaskow points out that although Jewish women have expanded their roles greatly
in the past thirty years, contradictions endure. In most homes women still
carry the major burden of preparing for Passover, a massive undertaking. More
important, the haggadah, the traditional text read aloud at a seder, relegates
women to the background in the Passover saga of Jewish liberation from Egyptian
slavery. We hear no mention of the courageous midwives the Bible describes as
having saved Hebrew babies from destruction. But we hear a great deal about the
need for men to teach their sons the story of the exodus from
Egypt and about men discussing and interpreting biblical passages.
Women's seders round out the telling, Plaskow argues, by
allowing participants to raise questions and add practices that might be out of
place in an ordinary seder. Indeed, women have written haggadahs specifically
for use at a women's seder; they've also created new liturgy and rituals,
poems, songs, and commentaries that expand on the conventional haggadah text.
The Women's Seder Sourcebook incorporates much of
this innovative new material. Unlike the Passover Companion, with its
longish essays on a variety of Passover subjects, this book follows the
step-by-step order of a seder. (The word seder literally means
"order," and a seder proceeds in a set pattern.) The short readings
and ritual suggestions in each section may be used to complement or substitute
for traditional haggadah passages. Thus, where the standard haggadah famously
speaks of the questions "four sons" ask, this book not only changes
the questioners to "four children" or "four daughters," but
also changes the questions. Rabbi Renni S. Altman, for instance, has the wise
daughter ask, "What is the real place of women in Judaism?" and the
naïve daughter inquire, "Is our history about only men?"
A section called "B'chol dor vador,"
("in every generation") is devoted to the haggadah's teaching that in
every generation Jews must see themselves as though they personally had left
Egypt. Among its readings is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's
reflection on three women of the past who inspire her to sustain that vision:
Emma Lazarus, whose words appear on the Statue of Liberty; Anne Frank; and
Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold.
In both books, the editors include introductions and
background information for each topic. In the Sourcebook, they also
present a guide to planning a women's seder. Having led women's seders at Yale
University and organized the student group, Jewish Women at Yale, they bring
knowledge and authority to their material. There are flaws, of course, in so
broad a project. Some of the rituals are embarrassingly touchy-feely, at least
to my taste. To take one example–is it necessary for women to massage one
another's hands in order to understand the significance of ceremonial hand
washing at a seder? And the term tikkun olam, or repairing the world, so
overused in the Jewish world that it has become almost a cliché, crops up too
often in these volumes, along with other repetitions that might well have been
But these are quibbles. Overall, the readings and
reflections offer a cornucopia of women's thoughts, insights, and history in
relation to Passover. They are also, in themselves, artifacts of that history.
In an important contribution, Susannah Heschel sets the record straight about
the origins of placing an orange on the seder plate, a practice that has become
widespread in mainstream as well as women's seders. She introduced that ritual
in her home in the 1980s as a sign of solidarity with lesbians and gay men. The
orange, she felt, suggested the fruitfulness the community enjoys when gays and
lesbians are accepted into it. Over the years, as Heschel's custom spread
throughout the Jewish community, a myth developed around it. The story went
that she had added the orange to the seder plate after a man shouted at her
that a woman belongs on the bimah (pulpit) as much as an orange on a seder
The orange has come to represent the empowerment of Jewish
women. By giving her account in these books, Heschel wants to affirm her
original intention, and she is right to do so. But as symbols often do, this
one has become larger than its originator. To many people the orange now stands
for the inclusion of all who have been marginalized. Gays and lesbians, yes,
but also all Jewish women, whose stories and voices were written out of the
haggadah. And now, like the orange on the seder plate, these two volumes of
Passover writings and rituals reclaim those stories and voices and place them
where they should be, at the center of the festival of freedom.