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As a kid, my mother taught us to put an orange on the seder plate as an act of feminism. Around that same time, she gave me a hot pink T-shirt with rainbow sparkle letters that read, “Anything boys can do, girls can do better.” It was the ’80s and my passions for girl power, rainbows and Jewish rituals were ignited.
My mom, and many other feminists, passed on the famous origin story of the orange, that Dr. Susannah Heschel was lecturing in Miami, and, while she was speaking of feminism, an Orthodox man supposedly shouted that “a woman belongs on the bimah [pulpit] as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate.” And so, as feminists, we all added the orange as an act of resistance; a symbol of women’s rights.
But, alas, that story that I had heard and retold for decades was a myth
(IFF/Philadlephia’s Rabbi Robyn Frisch discusses the myth here). And while I was studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I was quite surprised as the story was debunked by my rabbi and I learned what REALLY happened.
It was the 1980s, and Heschel was speaking at the Hillel Jewish student group at Oberlin College. While there, she came across a Haggadah written by a student that included a story of a young girl who asks her rabbi if there is room in Judaism for a lesbian. The rabbi in the story replies in anger, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate!”—implying that lesbians are impure and are a violation of Judaism.
The next year, Heschel put an orange on her seder plate and shared that she chose the orange “because it suggests the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.”
The seeds of the orange, like other items on the seder plate, symbolize rebirth and renewal. And some folks have taken on the tradition of spitting the seeds to remind us to spit out the hatred experienced by all marginalized members of our communities.
Since the addition of the orange, other symbols have been added to the traditional seder plate (watch our fun video guide for what to put on a seder plate). Some vegetarians and vegans have added a “paschal yam,” in place of the shank bone, which traditionally represents the paschal lamb. Others have included olives for peace in the Middle East. And some have placed potato peels on their plates to commemorate Jews who starved during the Holocaust.
Most recently I learned that members of Rabbis For Human Rights, who work to support the under-paid and over-worked tomato pickers in Florida, have included a tomato as a symbol of contemporary slavery.
“We who believe in FREEDOM, cannot rest until it comes.” This year, as I prepare to lead the Passover seder for my family and friends, I am emboldened to add these various symbols to our plate as reminders of who is not free. What segments of my community are still enslaved? What human rights issues must be addressed?
I am empowered to take action and commit to do the social justice work to bring equality and dignity to everyone. In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “No one is free until we are all free.”
As the sun began to set on a Friday night in June, 15 professional women in their 20s & 30s gathered in a gazebo to sing and welcome in Shabbat. The gazebo was next to an organic vegetable garden and overlooked a beautiful field that was surrounded by the woods. Most of us traveled about an hour to get to the Am Kollel Sanctuary Retreat Center in Beallsville, Maryland. Others came from San Francisco, Boston, Toronto and New York. We gathered for the At the Well East Coast retreat.
This was a retreat in its truest sense of the word: out of the city, , fresh air, a respite in nature from our hectic lives, delicious Shabbat meals cooked by DC chef and baker Julia Kann, morning yoga, small group conversations and a hike. On Shabbat, we had an opportunity to both study a Torah text about the spring holiday of Shavuot in which ancient Israelites offered the first fruits of their labors at the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as learn about women’s cycles as they connect to the phases of the moon and the seasons.
It was also what At the Well’s founder and chief momma Sarah Waxman called a “Meeting of Minds and Hearts.” After Shabbat, we turned our attention to the organization, hearing Sarah’s mission and vision for supporting groups of women (called Well Circles) who gather monthly to learn about Jewish spirituality and health and wellness. These Well Circles meet all over the country. Sarah sends out a monthly resource packet that is gorgeously designed with teachings about each Hebrew month, poetry, suggestions for discussions and activities to do in one’s Well Circle, ancient wisdom and modern day intentions. The idea of the Well Circle is part ancient gathering in celebration of Rosh Chodesh, the holiday of the new moon/first of each Hebrew month, and part modern Lean In circle.
Having been part of Rosh Chodesh circles on and off for the better part of a decade and having led my own Rosh Chodesh group in New Haven for two years, I was thrilled to connect with the At The Well project just as Sarah was launching it. Over the past eight months, I’ve been a rabbinic adviser to the project—writing for some of its monthly resources, supporting the cause and co-sponsoring the retreat with IFF/DC. While I love this project for what it is, I also love it for what it can be—and that the mission is expansive enough to support Jewish women and those female-identified in their 20s and 30s, as well as women from interfaith homes or in interfaith relationships, those who are exploring Judaism or conversion and even women of other faiths or no religion at all who are interested in what Jewish wisdom has to teach us about reconnecting with our bodies and our souls.
The ample time for one-on-one and small group conversations allowed participants to share their own stories. One woman who grew up in an interfaith household and did not have as much Jewish education as a child as she wanted, told me how much more comfortable she felt at the retreat just because I was there, knowing IFF/DC was part of it. She is moving to New York for graduate school in the fall and going to reach out to a former friend and mentor to explore Jewish learning.
Another woman I met who grew up in a more traditional Jewish household recently married a man of another faith. I told her more about IFF/DC, our Love and Religion workshops and Interfaith Shabbat dinner meet-ups. I also spoke with a woman who is exploring what Judaism means to her; having been very involved with Jewish life on campus she is no longer interested in institutional Judaism. She is in the process of figuring out her own connection to Judaism in her life now and how to share that with her boyfriend who is not Jewish. I look forward to continuing this and many other conversations.
As I listened to each participant speak about her journey, I realized over and over how important it is that our Jewish spaces be open enough to have these kinds of conversations. I am so glad that the At the Well project can be one of those spaces.
I know there are more women who are looking for intentional community, looking for peers to discuss and learn with, who may want to become part of a Well Circle. If you are, please get in touch with me at email@example.com or reach out to Sarah Waxman for more info and to receive the monthly teachings at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The At the Well East Coast Retreat was co-sponsored by the Schusterman Family Foundation, InterfaithFamily/DC and Jewish Food Experience. Learn more at atthewellproject.com.
I know this will embarrass you (and definitely make you cry) because that’s who you are, but in the spirit of this month of Thanksgiving, I wanted to say thank you.
Thank you for…
…saying yes when I was 7 and came home from a visit to Hebrew School and declared that I wanted to go back and learn Hebrew. I often imagine what the conversation was like between you and Dad that evening, but you had the courage to let me follow my heart and we joined a synagogue so that I could. There’s no way you or anyone could have known the impact that decision would have on all of our lives. Since you were never really moved by your family’s Catholicism or any sense of religion, I bet it was scary and uncomfortable at first, but you put me first and have always encouraged me to follow my passions.
…participating in my Jewish life, learning the prayers and the music the best you could, showing up for everything, being so proud of me at my bat mitzvah and then confirmation and encouraging me to make every Jewish choice I wanted. Not only did I want to learn Hebrew, but I also wanted to belong to a community and I wanted you and Dad and my sister, Evyn, to belong too. We were lucky to find a community that embraced us all, found committees for you to add your voice to, made sure you felt comfortable and allowed us to find meaning and make life long friends.
…influencing the person and the rabbi I am today. The odd rude person has asked me through the years if I ever was frustrated that you hadn’t converted or even that you weren’t Jewish. Once I got over my offense at the question, I always answered that so much of who I am is due to the person you are and I wouldn’t change that even if I could. When I became a rabbi, I made sure that your name was on my ordination certificate, transliterated into Hebrew because both you and Dad created me and saw me through those many years of study, struggle and triumph in order for me to reach that particular life long dream. You are the calm voice in my head, reminding me of what I can achieve, telling me sometimes to relax, urging me to stand up for myself, reminding me how proud I make you.
…enduring any ignorance that might have come your way: the people who didn’t understand how you could have a daughter who is a rabbi or those who simply didn’t include you, or even ignored you. You never let it bother you because you knew who you were and you showed me by your example how to be strong in a world where not everyone is accepting or kind.
Thank you for all the ways you choose love, by loving me, accepting me and always being my champion and my most fervent supporter (along with Dad, of course). I wouldn’t be who I am; wouldn’t be doing the work I love; couldn’t live the happy life I do—without your example of a strong woman, your humor, your quiet confidence, your effortless style and your soft heart. There will never be enough words to express how grateful I am for all that you are.
So thanks Mom, for being you.
P.S. Writing this made me cry—thanks for that too!
The first week of September I was privileged to introduce a discussion at Brandeis University between Anita Hill and Letty Cottin Pogrebin about faith, feminism and race. The discussion was framed by Pogrebin’s new book, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate.
Without ruining the book for those who haven’t picked it up yet, the main character, Zach, early on in the book promises his mother, a Holocaust survivor that he would marry a Jew and raise Jewish children (you can read more about it here). This promise is made at a young age, before the randomness and magnitude of life has the chance to impact Zach, and he tries to make his choices based on this promise. As you might imagine, it proves difficult and has a long lasting impact on his integrity and morality as the book continues. While the book is heavy with interfaith decision-making, interracial and intercultural issues and a variety of incarnations of feminism, the conversation between these two prolific authors was one devoted largely to generational division.
The question arose, “What do we really owe our parents?”
Pogrebin and Hill spoke not of interfaith or racial concerns when thinking through this question but rather of feminism. Do the women coming of age today understand what and who came before them that enables them to make the choices they make today? What sort of reverence or respect do second wave feminists deserve even if third or even fourth wave feminists make different—or even opposite—decisions about their lives, their bodies or their politics. The questions are easier to ask than answer. While I am no feminist scholar I understand the motivation behind these questions and the concerns, especially in the context of the complex and diverse interfaith population.
We do owe our parents and those who came before us respect, not merely for existing, and perhaps in having a hand in our existence, but also because they want to make the world better for us. We benefit from their hand in the evolution of the world. We benefit from what was bestowed upon us: the values, the cultural and/or religious ideology taught, the opportunities provided whether big or small, the love given.
Now I am not too cockeyed optimistic to understand that far too many people don’t have good parents and the evolution of our world has had long reaching negative consequences. But I am not willing to give up and I don’t think you are either. So we can respect and revere those on whose shoulders we stand and take up our own mantle of evolution, perhaps righting some wrongs not yet accomplished. For an inspiring look at this topic, see Dr. Ruth Nemzoff’s recent piece in the Huffington Post advising the next generation about how to promote feminism.
Zach’s life was ruled by what he felt he owed his mother and each of us live with expectations from those who raised us, deserved or not, realistic or not, achieved or not. I spend a fair amount of time counseling parents/grandparents/family members about the expectations they have carried with them for their children, whether it is something they could never accomplish themselves, or a life a bit better than theirs, a higher paying job, security, loving and marrying someone of the same faith background, raising children of that faith, etc. Sometimes children grow up aware of these hopes and dreams, sometimes they aren’t verbalized, but all parents have expectations for their children. It’s natural, it’s expected, and it’s what should happen. Inevitably though, each person turns out to want, care about, excel at or love different things. The trick is: How do we mourn the loss of our expectations without asking our children to bear the weight of that loss?
For some it comes easier than others; some expectations are easier to let to go; while others linger like heartbreak. Maybe the question becomes: What do we owe our children?
The world is not perfect and neither are we, but I think we owe our children a chance. A chance to make their own decisions, to trust in their capabilities and the opportunities we provided—the values and heritage we taught. We owe our children the love they need from us, to right past wrongs, to continue that evolution, to find fulfillment in ways we never could have imagined, let alone expected.
And together, we owe ourselves a little bit of hope and faith. Hope that each generation can and will achieve more and faith that this achievement reflects the best of humanity. Hope that each of our rich histories and sense of heritage and culture will endure and faith that we will continue to seek and create relevance in them. Hope that we get what we want and faith that we get what we need.
Please join in this conversation with me, there is so much we learn from one another.