Of Oranges and Coffee Beans: Feminist Seder Rituals Decoded
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.
There’s a Facebook group devoted to “Oranges on Your Seder Plates,” and even one devoted just to fans of Susannah Heschel.
It doesn’t stop at oranges.
At a “Miriam’s Seder” at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center two years ago, according to this article, “a coffee bean [on the seder plate] stood for the bitterness and stress of juggling professional and family life, and an empty cup recognized a need for space to nurture oneself.”
Feminist seders were born in 1975, when feminist trailblazers Esther Broner, Marcia Freedman and Nomi Nimrod created one in Haifa and wrote “The Women’s Haggadah.” Esther and Marcia brought it to New York the following year, and since then it has been an annual ritual involving “Seder Sisters,” who include writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin., and their guests. (The “Seder Sisters” held their 35th annual women’s seder over the weekend.)
In this New York Times article I wrote about the creative and exciting feminist seders run by Ma’yan, which brought together thousands of Jewish women young and old, rich and struggling, over a few nights each year. The organization stopped offering the seders five years ago to focus on other things. Framing everything through a feminist lens, the seders celebrated Moses’ sister, Miriam, their mother, Yocheved, and the midwives Shifra and Puah, whose refusal to follow Pharoah’s instruction to drown all male babies was the first subversive step by women in the Jewish resistance against enslavement. But they also celebrated women in more recent Jewish history, women who were pioneers in the labor movement, politics and the arts, but whose legacies are rarely discussed.
Women’s seders are popular around the country now, though because of discomfort with the term feminism, they’re rarely called feminist. I’ve heard from the women at synagogues and Jewish federation women’s divisions, which run many of these seders, that feminism is considered too provocative a term, and they’re afraid to alienate any of their constituents.
But that doesn’t mean that interesting feminist things don’t happen at seders. This page on RitualWell includes several feminist readings and rituals to bring to the seder table.
My favorite recent seder addition is the Miriam’s Cup,, a special goblet filled with water that we have on our seder tables next to the empty Elijah’s Cup.
Here’s what RitualWell says about the Miriam’s Cup:
Some fill Miriam’s Cup at the very beginning of the seder. Miriam, after all, appears at the very beginning of the Exodus story (watching over her brother Moses in the Nile). Starting with Miriam’s Cup is also a way of letting people know right from the beginning that your seder is going to be a fully inclusive one. Also, since Elijah’s Cup comes at the end of the seder, it is nice to use the two cups as a frame for your seder and begin with Miriam.
Others fill or raise Miriam’s cup after the recitation of the Ten Plagues and before “Dayenu,” which carries the story of the Exodus through the crossing of the Red Sea and into the wilderness, moments during which Miriam played an important role. Others use Miriam’s Cup along with Elijah’s Cup towards the close of the seder, with Elijah representing the herald of the messiah, and Miriam, a prophet urging us to do the work to bring about redemption. Another suggestion is to close the seder by passing around Miriam’s Cup for every one to take a drink, and commit to carrying the seder’s themes with them beyond the night of the seder.
I have a different take. My friend Helen, who every year for more than a decade has hosted us at her wonderful and wacky family seder, invites me to talk about it at the end of the ritual when we point to the Kos Eliyahu. Elijah the prophet is, in Jewish tradition, the harbinger of messianic redemption. But the Miriam’s Cup is about God’s immanence in the present. The Israelites had water throughout their 40 year journey through the Sinai desert because a well miraculously followed Miriam as a reward for her righteousness, our tradition tells us. So while Elijah’s cup is about hope for God’s help in the (near) future, Miriam’s cup is about God’s presence with us in the here and now, providing for us and sustaining us even through life’s travails.
Miriam’s Cups have become easy to find in gift shops
and Judaica sellers.
The ultimate proof that they’re now mainstream is that I found one for sale on QVC.