On Monday night, the first night of Pesach, many of us will sit around a table telling stories. The primary narrative of the evening — the exodus of the Jews from Egypt — is pretty much the same at every gathering, as is the basic framework of the haggadah from which we’ll tell the story. Drink wine, dip greens, break matzah, eat bitter herbs, make Hillel sandwich, drink wine, drink wine. Dayenu! And so on.
But the diversity of our personal narratives impacts how we each understand this story. We all carry a legacy of distinct experiences and backgrounds that shapes how we understand what it means to be enslaved. For women especially, remembering the exodus can be complex. Women start to become insignificant immediately following the exodus as stories of military might become the stuff of which Torah is made. In her book “The Nakedness of the Fathers,” Alicia Suskin Ostriker explains that it is in “the life of Moses that we see the women disappear. We see the flash of their backs as they dive, like dolphins, beneath the agitated surface of the text.”
Every Seder has its own story. There was Passover circa 1960, when Uncle Buddy stood in for Elijah. Or the Passover of 1985, when we started the Seder as we got up from sitting shiva for my father. I will never forget the Passover Seders when each of our children recited the Four Questions for the first time. Or the Passover when our first grandson made his appearance, and we all were transformed in our familial relationships and identities.
But no matter what the backstory, for each Seder it was clearly understood where the event should take place. For example, in my childhood, my parents lovingly prepared and led the Seder in our apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, which was filled with family members and friends. And for the past 30-odd years, the Seder has taken place at our home on Long Island, with our own children, grandchildren, my mother-in-law and friends showing up faithfully each year, celebrating amidst the cacophony of generations.
Of course, there were occasional outliers, like the year our older daughter got married and she and her husband made their own Seder. “So, are the newlyweds coming to you this year?” friends asked with a smile. I forced a smile back. “They are making their own Seder. Isn’t that amazing and beautiful?” I opined. I felt it was true, but another part of me wasn’t quite ready for the separation. (Ironically, I then remembered that my husband and I had also created our own gestalt-experiential vegetarian Seder for our friends in graduate school when we were first married.)
Passover. The word itself makes me shudder. If this holiday is about celebrating the redemption of the Jewish people and the renewal of a nation, why, year after year, do I feel shackled by its very presence?
My earliest memory of Passover goes something like this: There I sat, age four, happily playing with my Polly Pocket when my mother tapped me on the shoulder, handed me a toothbrush, and ordered me to scrub the tires of our station wagon.
Years later, when I asked my mother why she burdened me with that seemingly pointless task, she explained that I needed to understand the “spirit” of the holiday. In other words, I couldn’t just sit around playing with my toys while the rest of the family slaved away.
Ironic as it is, the word “slaving” best describes my family’s Passover prep: The Jews were saved, and in celebration, we turn ourselves into slaves during the Jewish month of Nissan. Before you call me a heretic for having such cynical feelings, allow me to share a typical Passover prep schedule from my childhood.
If ever there was proof positive that a once-marginal feminist Jewish ritual is now mainstream, this is it: The latest Pottery Barn catalog touts a new seder plate — holding an orange.
The modern, leaf-themed Passover tabletop accouterment has seven compartments. In addition to spaces for the ritual re-telling’s traditional symbols, there’s a leaf meant to hold an orange, which is also featured in the catalog photo.
Including an orange on the seder plate dates back to the early 1980s, according to the innovation’s creator, Susannah Heschel, a Jewish studies professor at Dartmouth and the daughter of famed Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
As she relates, adding an orange grew out of her experience visiting Oberlin College, where she encountered a student-written feminist hagaddah. That hagaddah suggested putting a crust of bread — prohibited, of course, during the chametz-free festival — to express solidarity with lesbians and gay men after a rebbetzin had said, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate.” Heschel decided, the following year, to put an orange on her family’s seder plate.
What does the path to freedom look like?
In the Haggadah it says: “Once we were slaves, now we are free.” That transition is recounted and celebrated in a “Seder” — literally an “order” of fifteen sequential steps.
Freedom means different things to different people. My great journey to freedom was wresting myself out of my ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of origin, and into life as a secular, progressive woman. But I find that I can’t recount my path to freedom in an orderly way.
The transition to freedom is chaotic. It is sprawling and muddled and ugly and glorious and confusing and difficult. In the story of Passover, the transition includes an ancient legend of a redeemer, a young girl challenging her father, another daughter betraying her father, a detour into deeper suffering and darkness, a redeemer with a speech impediment, — and, of course, plagues, journeys out, hot pursuits, persistent courage, profound miracles, dancing, singing, complaining and new troubles. It is a mess.
While some may honor the Passover story with order that counters the pandemonium, in my home we embrace it.
This past weekend, the New York Times wrote about a group of Jewish Bruce Springsteen fans who rented out a room at a Madison Square Garden restaurant this past Friday night so they could participate in a Seder and still make it down to “the pit” (the general admission area) in time for their rock-and-roll idol to step out on stage to the wild cheers of thousands.
I identified immediately. My family is one of many Jewish families in the Northeast who are combining two of our most important faith-based events in one short span of time: seeing Bruce on tour, and sitting down to Seder. And that very ritualistic combination speaks to the nature of faith in a secular world: Some might decry the Seder/Springsteen juxtaposition as watered-down, or a “choose your own” form of religious indulgence. To me it represents one great aspect of our modern era, a symbol that not every meaningful experience comes with dogma attached.
I noted last year that as a secular humanist, Passover is one of a few Jewish rituals that have deep meaning for me.
Pesach is one of my favorite holidays. I love the educational, creative possibilities of the Seder, the opportunity to debate, discuss and dramatize our collective history. Over the years, my family has done some wonderfully imaginative things at the Seder table — plays, original songs, games, colored dips, hand-made pillows, and even a puppet show about the exodus in which all the characters were variants of felt penguins. One year, we made our own Haggadah, using the kids’ drawings and writings connected to select parts of the book. For me, Pesach preparation is about creative education. It is the only holiday in the Jewish calendar where the whole point is to bring history to life in any and every possible way.
But you would never know it from the traditional lead-up to Pesach. When Jews meet one another on the street these days, conversations about “preparations” generally refer to how much cleaning has been accomplished. Even Shlomo Artzi, the Israeli pop star who can well afford to hire cleaning help, revealed in his column last week that memories of his mother handing him a vacuum cleaner before Pesach have remained indelibly etched on his Jewish soul. Today, he finds vacuuming to be a source of comfort, in the same category as chicken soup, the kind of activity that makes some people miss their mothers.
I have found myself trying to avoid talking to people this week because I really don’t want to hear some variety of this question: “So what are you up to in your house?” Meaning, how many rooms or shelves or chandeliers have you managed to scrub clean already. It’s so tired and predictable that I would rather run and climb up a few dozen stairs to reach the other side of the neighborhood in order to find a way not to enter into another one of the cleaning competition conversations.
Come seder night, Jews the world over will be sharing age-old traditions, like drinking four cups of wine and hiding the afikoman. But at what seems like a growing number of seder tables, the old traditions are being joined by newer ones which reflect the lives and voices of women.
Perhaps the best-known new tradition adds an orange to the seder plate.
Many have heard the apparently apocryphal explanation that the orange was added as a protest response to a rabbi who said that “a woman belongs on the bima like an orange belongs on a seder plate.” In actuality, the ritual was started was started by Susannah Heschel — the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and herself a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth. She is said to be inspired by women at Oberlin College in 1984, who made space on their seder plate to represent all who were not explicitly present in the Passover story; for Heschel, the orange represented solidarity with women and homosexuals. This article on RitualWell is by Deborah Eisehnbach-Budner and Alex Borns-Weil, two of the women who were there and “made the space” for a potent symbol on the seder plate.
It doesn’t stop at oranges.
At this point in the Pesach lead-up, a liberated woman’s mind turns from the inside of her refrigerator, which she is examining with curiosity — what year did I buy this pesto? — to her hopes for this year’s seder. For some women, this leads to the avid purchasing of new haggadahs or the creation of art projects that simulate the 10 plagues or thinking up “homework assignments” for invited guests (“Describe a time in your life when your heart felt hard”).
Behind this flurry of activity — in the kitchen and at the crafts table — is the desire that the seder be a night entirely set apart, a taste of the world to come. In our clean houses, with our special Pesach dishes, our seder plates full of the symbolic and the evocative, and this very compelling story of our liberation from slavery in front of us, the expectations for a sense of transformation are high.
And yet the actual experience of the seder for many of us, can fall seriously short of this.