The Orange on the Seder Plate


Women's Reflections on the Festival of Freedom
Edited by Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Tara Mohr, and Catherine Spector.
302 pages. Jewish Lights. $24.95.

Rituals & Readings for Use at the Passover Seder
Edited by 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 edited out.

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 plate.

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.