In the early 1980s, gays and feminists initiated a new custom of placing an orange* on the seder plate. The idea was that this dinner service celebrating the Jews' exodus out of Egypt, and Judaism itself, should include all Jews--even those who had been marginalized within the Jewish community. There is as much room for them in Judaism as there is for an orange on a seder plate--which traditionally holds symbols of the Passover story such as bitter herbs, a shank bone, and an egg. The orange that many Jewish families now include on the plate is a symbol of how times have changed.
As a perhaps even greater sign of how things have changed, last year I ran our family's seder (the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover meal). What's the big deal? It's traditional for the father of a Jewish family to lead the service. The problem is, I'm not Jewish.
For the last fifteen years, our family has traveled to Boston to be with my in-laws for Passover. Last year, however, circumstances changed our plans, and my in-laws flew to Michigan. My wife Bonnie, our two daughters and I had the first in-our-house seder ever. We were sad that we had to miss being with Bonnie's aunt, uncle, and cousins. Yet, at the same time, it was exciting to make our home kosher and prepare the meal. We bought boxes of matzah (traditional unleavened flat bread); we made charoset (an apple-cinnamon-walnut-wine dish representative of the mortar the ancient Hebrew slaves made); we cut up chunks of horseradish (symbolic of the bitterness of slavery); and we got rid of any non-kosher, leavened, food in the cupboards. This was a house ready for Passover.
While we were making preparations and deciding who was to pick up our friend Esther, the subject of who would lead the dinner arose. I naturally assumed that Bonnie would. She is the Jewish head of our house. If she wanted to defer to her dad, then that was okay, too. When the two of them suggested that I lead the seder, my jaw dropped and nearly fell into a bowl of salt water. It was a scary thought to me. What if I messed up? What if I sang "Had Gadya" to the tune of "Dayenu"? What if I didn't do it right and Moses couldn't part the Red Sea this time? "Isn't there someone a little more qualified?" I asked.
"Jim, how many of these seders have you participated in?" Bonnie replied rhetorically. "We've been together for eighteen years--and there are two seders every Passover."
She was right. I knew this holiday backwards and forwards. The more I thought about it, leading the service was an honor and a big step for me in helping to raise our Jewish daughters. I could imagine no better way to help them understand that, even though I am Protestant, I can take a major role in teaching them about their holiday.
So I picked up Esther and brought her back to our home. Soon it was time for dinner, and we began our seder. I recited the blessings in Hebrew (I think I pronounced most of the words correctly); I had people take turns reading from the haggadah (book that relates the story and guides the service); I helped explain the story to my daughters and asked them questions; I sang along to the songs in Hebrew (most of the time in tune); and I read how Moses led "our" people out of Egypt. As I read that last sentence, I thought, "Now this is a sight you don't see every day."
If people put an orange on the plate for marginalized Jews, I wonder what they would put on the plate for a non-Jew? A tomato? Yuck. A peanut butter sandwich? Too many people with allergies. A shrimp cocktail? Not kosher. How about a kiwi? It's not offensive, it's kosher, and it's delicious.
Fortunately, before I lost my place, my brain snapped into focus just as pharaoh changed his mind about letting his slaves go. I adeptly stepped back into the haggadah and got the ancient Hebrews across the Red Sea to safety. Moses' sister Miriam shook her timbral, and we all burst into song. I had done it. I had led the seder, soup to nuts. It was a meaningful service celebrating freedom. We all enjoyed the story, the food, and the company of family and friends.
Later that evening, I dropped Esther off at her apartment. As I started the drive back to our interfaith house, I began thinking about the evening's event. Driving alone always gives me time to think. No need for the radio--I kept singing Dayenu at the top of my lungs. I wondered how strange our seder would have seemed in the eyes of the Jewish community. I even felt a little sheepish about taking the lead in one of their greatest holidays. Then I remembered that the intermarriage rate among Jews is nearly 50 percent. I realized that there had probably been many scenes like ours around the country. I'm not sure of the significance of this. But I do think that anything that helps make Judaism a positive experience for two young Jewish girls can't be all that bad--even if it is a Protestant dad who's trying his best.
This year, our family will be back in Boston for Passover. My father-in-law, uncle Sid, or cousin Ken will probably run the seders. Now that I've directed one of my own, I'll feel more involved than ever. Of course, this year my role will not be as prominent, but that's okay. It's their home, and they do a better job. I just wonder if they'll let me sneak a kiwi onto the plate.
*Editor's note: Today, many believe the orange on a seder plate to represent the inclusion of women, specifically women's leadership roles and full empowerment in Jewish life. However, the tradition was actually started to symbolize the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the Jewish community; the orange represented the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life. For more on the history of the orange, see this blog post at the Jewish Women's Archive.