A (Third) Seder of Her Own
I ducked the fifth fast by shunning my feminist roots.
All firstborn sons are supposed to fast on the eve of Passover to remember that God saved the eldest Jewish boys during the 10th plague; some Jews interpret the mandate to apply to women as well. My mother, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, an un-shy feminist (and loving nudge), assumed I would fast as part of my holiday trek. “I’m not a firstborn son,” I replied petulantly (I frankly didn’t relish starving all day before the first bite of karpas).
She retorted, “But you’re a firstborn!” (Well, barely: I was born just one minute ahead of my identical twin sister.)
I didn’t fold. “The 10th plague smote all Egyptian firstborn sons,” I said, leaning on Exodus. “I think the gender matters here. It doesn’t apply to me.”
The upshot: I did not abstain on April 3, the day that led to the first Seder, nor did I study a tractate of Talmud, which is the accepted alternative to fasting. But when a place opened up at The Feminist Seder on Sunday night, April 5, and my mother invited me to fill it, I accepted.
Even though I had barely recovered from our family’s two large, lively and lovely Seders and I was still reeling from the planning, cooking and cleaning up (not to mention the mega-Manischewitz hangover), I went not just to atone for my non-feminist non-fast, but also because I hadn’t been to The Feminist Seder since I was in college, and I remember how powerful it was in my youth, when I would go every year.
I capitalize “The Feminist Seder” on purpose. Because although there are now hundreds of feminist Seders around the world, this is the original, the revolutionary ritual started in 1976 by the late Esther Broner — a giant academic and spiritual presence — in collaboration with a group of women that came to be known as the “Seder sisters” and includes my writer mom.
The Feminist Seder reimagined a ritual that had largely sidelined women in the Bible, the Haggadah and the Seder itself, one that left it to the men at the table to pray, recount, sing and discuss. This innovative women-only ceremony was a highlight of my youth in the 1970s and ’80s, when I was still wearing the Danskin pantsuits Mom insisted looked good on me.
Each year, after the family Seders at Aunt Betty’s and then Uncle Danny’s, I looked forward to a whole new world the third night in New York City’s SoHo or Chelsea: the improvised “table” set up on the floor of someone’s loft, the pile of pillows we all brought to sit on in a circle and the myriad dishes the 30-or-so guests brought for the potluck meal.
I remember being soothed by Esther Broner’s ethereal voice, being amazed at her poetic asides, pushed by her incisive questions.
I felt privileged to be a “Seder daughter,” sitting among such giants of the women’s movement as Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug (who always needed a chair).
I remember listening attentively to the teachings of writer Phyllis Chesler, artists Bea Kreloff and Edith Isaac-Rose, filmmaker Lilly Rivlin — cousin of the current Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, and the director of “Esther Broner: A Weave of Women,” a documentary that chronicles the Seder’s evolution.
But for reasons too complicated to enumerate here, one year the Seder daughters were not included, and that sadly ended a precious tradition for me. I suppose I could have invented my own version as an adult, but life gets in the way.
When Esther Broner died in 2011, the eulogies at her memorial service resurrected her voice in my mind — her ability to make inquiry feel holy, a warmth that is hard to describe.
This year’s Seder was a confirmation of her legacy, the 40th celebration of the rite she conceived, led collaboratively by a smaller group of her devoted friends, including Rivlin; her sister, Dot; my mother; Canadian writer Michele Landsberg; Carol Jenkins, former news anchor and now president of the Women’s Media Center; Sue Leonard, editor of Persimmon Tree, which features the work of women over 60; Jewish Federation executive Anita Altman; classical pianist Gena Raps, and Esther’s daughter, Nahama Broner, a professor of psychology who was always decidedly more hip than me and my twin sister (no Danskin pantsuits on her).
Our host Sunday night was Barbara Kane, a psychoanalyst who, when she lost her husband to Lou Gherig’s disease — also known as ALS — in 1995, invited her close friend, Esther Broner, and Robert Broner, her artist husband, to move in with her. Bob’s art is all over her walls. One framed work he created out of the Seder sisters’ list of “women’s plagues” one year is an amalgam of words thrown out by participants: “exhaustion,” “fear,” “breast cancer” and “GW Bush.”
After greetings and wine, Kane asked us to begin the Seder out in her hallway, as she read from words she’d drafted on her iPhone:
“Together we create this oasis, a space sacred in time. Let the magic begin. We who know the wound that never heals and the fire that never goes out come together this evening to help this strange Seder story evolve, this odd story with its gaps and omissions. We will ask questions: important, even crucial ones….”
The 12 of us filed into her apartment silently and took seats around Kane’s large square coffee table, set elaborately with a copper Seder plate, ceramic dishes, various individual candles, earth-colored cloth napkins encircled by delicate jungle animal napkin holders, and bowls containing the requisite charoset, maror, matzo and salt water.
As has been the custom for the past 40 years, each woman introduced herself by her matrilineage, and it was unexpectedly powerful for me to be invoking my teenage daughter for the first time: “I am Abigail, mother of Molly, daughter of Letty, daughter of Ceil, daughter of Jenny.”
Rivlin asked us to “bring an invisible guest” to the table, a woman, living or dead, whom we wished could be present. Nahama Broner brought the unnamed women of the Exodus story — the female Hebrew slaves; the seven daughters of Midian, the women who danced on the shores of the Red Sea. She also brought her own daughter, Alexandra, who is currently doing development work in Kenya and who dialed in via Skype to greet everyone.
Landsberg brought Ernestine Rose, a little-known abolitionist and women’s rights activist of the 19th century who felt alone as a Jewish atheist among Christian activists. Rose told her friend Susan B. Anthony in a letter, “I expect never to be understood while I live.”
My mother brought my late aunt Betty, who warmed to the women’s movement after initially resisting it, and who eagerly participated in The Feminist Seder for years until she died in 2013. Altman kindly added her memory of meeting my aunt back in the ’90s, just after Betty had lost her son, my cousin Jeffrey, to AIDS, and had decided to become active in PFLAG — Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
Kane’s “invisible guest” was Sabina Spielrein, a patient of Carl Jung’s who became his student and ultimately his colleague, one of the very first female psychoanalysts, though unsung to this day. She was killed by a Nazi death squad.
Jenkins brought her 5-year-old granddaughter, who happens to love the opera, and who, during their recent excursion to “Aida” (which includes slave characters), asked her African-American grandma, “What’s slavery?” Jenkins said that to find herself explaining such a basic inhumanity to her progeny — “It’s when someone owns another person and tells them what to do” — was a profound evocation of the Exodus story.
After the blessing over the candles, we were asked to bless the woman to our right in some private way. My mother blessed me — a little overemotionally, but I could see it was poignant for her to have one of her daughters back at this ceremony — and then I blessed Kathleen Peratis, who is an attorney specializing in workplace discrimination and a writer who has taken many fact-finding trips to the West Bank and Gaza. I quietly blessed her for the model of close friendship she has with my mother, and also for her mettle; she asserts controversial opinions without any discernible fear — a courage I lack.
Peratis’s job Sunday night was to offer a modern interpretation of the Seder plate. She said the scorched egg reminded us that “some of our dreams are toast,” and the matzo symbolized simplicity. She had recently listened to a public radio interview with Bruce Kramer, an ALS patient who said his fatal disease “cured him of planning.” Peratis acknowledged that we’re all crazy planners and should keep in mind, “All that really matters is simplicity.”
Sue Leonard used the Ten Commandments to talk about the plight of public education.
Jenkins used the 150th anniversary of the march in Selma as the metaphor for coming out of the desert.
Mom asked us to take turns reading “The Ten Plagues According to Women,” which she wrote in 2010, wherein “beasts” are those who “attack women and children behind closed doors, some with mezzuzot on their doorposts,” and darkness is the “dark hole in Jewish history” with too many women “unnamed, unseen, unrecognized.”
I veered, as I often do, between being moved and resistant — admiring the fact that these women still call out injustices, but not galvanized to do more to correct those wrongs; stirred by some of the sexist specters but also alienated because I don’t experience them personally.
After three interesting hours and Kane’s delicious meal, there was the annual ritual of draping the so-called “sacred shmatta” around our shoulders — a chain of gauzy fabric, one piece tied crudely to the next, wrapped around our group like one continuous tallit.
“Wait a second,” Mom said. “This doesn’t look like the original shmatte.”
“It’s not,” Nahama Broner said as she sighed patiently, and then explained, clearly for the umpteenth time, that she donated the wilted original to Brandeis University, whose library houses all of her mother’s papers.
“I can get it back on loan if we want it next year,” Broner offered.
“I think this replacement-shmatte is beautiful,” Raps said. So we put our arms around each other, enfolded by the substitute shmatte, and sang Landsberg’s version of “Dayenu” with verses such as this:
“If only Torah told the story/ Of the women, gave them glory/ If our mothers were remembered/ Dayenu.”
“Next year in Jerusalem” may mean this: Next year it’s time for me and my sister to introduce my daughter and niece to this tradition they’ve missed, perhaps with a whole new group of their peers.
We should probably show them a tradition that dramatizes how the story is often incomplete, that women’s narrow places — their “mitzrayim — are not small complaints but urgent, persistent inequity; that there’s something uniquely uplifting about being in a room of strong, self-assured, introspective, unabashedly feminist women. It changes the conversation; it’s a different kind of family.
The Seder sisters included these words on their Haggadah this year:
“We end with grace /We greet the night /And the following dawn/ In the bosom of friends/And a Seder of our own.”