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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.”
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.
Zach Levy, the left-leaning son of Holocaust survivors, promises his mother on her deathbed that he will marry within the tribe and raise Jewish children. When he falls for Cleo Scott, an African American activist grappling with her own inherited trauma, he must reconcile his old vow to the family he loves with the present realty of the woman who may be his soul mate. A New York love story complicated by the legacies and modern tensions of Jewish-American and African-American history, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, by Letty Cottin Pogrebin, explores what happens when the heart runs counter to politics, history and the compelling weight of tradition.
On September 10 at the Levin Ballroom at Brandeis University, InterfaithFamily is proud to be a co-sponsor of Faith, Race, Feminism and the Ties that Bind: Professor Anita Hill in Conversation with Letty Cottin Pogrebin with opening remarks from our own Rabbi Jillian Cameron, director of Interfaithfamily/Boston.
This event is a conversation that is set around the release of Cottin Pogrebin’s book, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate by Feminist Press. These two iconic feminists discuss the movement’s past, present and future, and the imprint of family history on identity and values.
We have two copies of this book to give away in conjunction with this exciting event. Enter to win by August 31 and please join us for this exciting event at the Levin Ballroom on the Brandeis campus. The event is free, but reservations are highly recommended.
If you, like me, are past the age of 40, you may remember years ago hearing the claim that Little Mikey of LIFE cereal fame died from the explosive effects of mixing Pop Rocks candy with soda pop. Or you may have heard that children’s television show host Mr. Rogers (Fred Rodgers) always wore long-sleeved shirts and sweaters on his show to conceal the tattoos on his arms he obtained while serving in the military. Or perhaps you’ve heard that alligators live under the New York City sewer system. But, in reality, none of these stories are true. They’re all “urban legends.” And I’m proud to say that I never believed any of them (well, except the one about Mikey and Pop Rocks—I did believe that one for awhile…).
But there’s another urban legend, one connected to the Passover seder, that I’ve believed for years. In fact, I’ve told this story many times at my own seders. It’s the story of the “orange on the seder plate.” And until this week, I always thought the story I told was true—after all, I’d heard it so many times, and read it in so many different places.
The story goes something like this: Professor Susannah Heschel was giving a lecture in Miami Beach, when a man stood up and yelled: “A woman belongs on a bimah like an orange belongs on a seder plate.” In order to show that women DO belong on the bimah—that women have the right to a place in Jewish ritual and in Jewish leadership—Heschel and others began to place oranges on their seder plates. (According to another version of the story, the man yelled: “A woman belongs on the bimah like a piece of bread belongs on the seder plate.” Wanting to make a point about women’s rightful place in Judaism, but not wanting to place bread, which is forbidden on Passover, on her seder plate, Heschel replaced “bread” with “an orange,” since the incident took place in Florida, “The Orange State.”)
I learned the story of “the orange on the seder plate” sometime in the late 1990s, when I was a rabbinical student. At the time I was in my early 30s, hosting my own seders for the first time. Like many of my colleagues, I strived to make my seders authentic, relevant and meaningful by balancing tradition with creativity and innovation. I embraced the traditional symbols of the seder (the four cups of wine, matzah, egg, parsley, etc.) and also newer symbols, such as Miriam’s Cup and the orange. For the past 15 years or so, when I’ve gone to the produce store to buy parsley, horseradish and apples and nuts for my charoset, I’ve made sure to purchase an orange for my seder plate as well. And at every seder I’ve hosted, I’ve shared the “story of the orange on the seder plate” and how it represents women’s equality in Judaism.
But recently I found out that the story I’ve been telling simply isn’t true. Here’s the TRUE STORY, in Professor Susannah Heschel’s own words, from an article that she wrote for The Jewish Daily Forward in 2013:
“At an early point in the seder…I asked each person to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit and eat the segment in recognition of gay and lesbian Jews and of widows, orphans, Jews who are adopted and all others who sometimes feel marginalized in the Jewish community.
“When we eat that orange segment, we spit out the seeds to repudiate homophobia and we recognize that in a whole orange, each segment sticks together. Oranges are sweet and juicy and remind us of the fruitfulness of gay and lesbian Jews and of the homosociality that has been such an important part of Jewish experience, whether of men in yeshivas or of women in the Ezrat Nashim.”
Heschel went on to write of the Miami Beach lecture urban legend:
“That incident never happened! Instead, my custom had fallen victim to a folktale process in which my original intention was subverted. My idea of the orange was attributed to a man, and my goal of affirming lesbians and gay men was erased.
“Moreover, the power of the custom was subverted: By now, women are on the bimah, so there is no great political courage in eating an orange, because women ought to be on the bimah.
“For years, I have known about women whose scientific discoveries were attributed to men, or who had to publish their work under a male pseudonym. That it happened to me makes me realize all the more how important it is to recognize how deep and strong patriarchy remains, and how important it is for us to celebrate the contributions of gay and lesbian Jews, and all those who need to be liberated from marginality to centrality. And Passover is the right moment to ensure freedom for all Jews.”
I’m glad to have finally learned the “true story” of “the orange on the seder plate.” And now that I know it, will I still put an orange on MY seder plate this Passover? I sure will! But, like Professor Heschel, I’ll invite each of the participants at my seder to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit that grows on trees and eat the segment in recognition of gay and lesbian Jews and of widows, orphans, Jews who are adopted, interfaith couples and families and all others who sometimes feel marginalized in the Jewish community.
After all, the Passover seder is very much a time for asking questions (for the importance of questions in the Passover seder—beyond the “Four Questions”—see my blog from last year about the seder). And if I’ve learned anything from discovering the truth about the urban legend of the “orange on the seder plate,” it’s that we need to constantly be questioning: even those things that we’re confident we already “know.”