When I was growing up, the colors of the Passover seder plate were primarily dull and dark. A shank bone, a roasted egg, horseradish, salt, and the delicious but yucky looking charoises (minced apples, nuts and dried fruit soaked in red wine). The one relieving color (and the dullest flavor) was that of the fresh parsley.
Then one year, a big, bright orange appeared on the seder plate. The story I was told back then was that it was in response to some rabbi who once said, “There will be a female rabbi when there’s an orange on the Pesach seder plate.” In other words, he considered both to be not only unlikely but impossible. Naturally, as the story goes, feminists started to put an orange on their seder plates, and the practice spread like wildfire.
Beyond any metaphorical meaning, I was delighted to see that orange on the seder plate. It felt like a fresh bit of life among the dull, dark artifacts of our history. As such it helped to make the history feel more modern and relevant. At the same time, it was a recognition of the long line of women who came before me, stretching back through my mother and grandmothers through the generations to the matriarchs of ancient times.
Besides, oranges have been one of my favorite treats for as long as I can remember. What fun it is to use my nails and fingertips to pierce and peel away the tough, pebbly skin, to get to the crisp sweet-tart pulpy juices that play on my tongue. And as a writer, I get a kick out of the fact that even the sound of the word is unique; no word in the English language rhymes holistically with orange. (Botanists will point to “sporange” which is a part of ferns, fungi, algae, or mosses. But really, how many of us will ever use sporange in a poem?)
All these years, I have identified with that orange on the seder plate. Not that I ever wanted to be a rabbi. I lack one essential qualification for that calling: an earnest belief in a supreme being that is the guiding force of all life. But like the orange, I often felt like the odd person out, the creative kid who was a bit too sensitive and had to grow a thicker skin just to survive childhood, but who had to slough that hard shell when it was time for the creative juices to flow.
I won’t go into the unfortunately typical litany of the difficulties that I have experienced simply because I’m a women. Suffice it to say, like most women I know, I have often felt like I have a flat head from all the glass ceilings I’ve hit just because I’ve been a woman working hard to get ahead in what was primarily a man’s world.
The orange on the seder plate has felt like an affirmation of my choice to embrace the struggle and claim my place wherever I felt I should belong. And seeing that darn orange next to the shank bone and parsley always makes me feel a bit mischievous and rebellious.
However, in recent years, I’ve learned that the anecdote about why we have an orange on the seder plate had been homogenized and made into a bland “Reader’s Digest” version of the full story.
Professor Susannah Heschel, who originated the feminist ritual, has said that she chose an orange to represent “the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life. In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out — a gesture of spitting out, repudiating the homophobia of Judaism.” Heschel further commented that it was typical that the origin of the Passover orange is attributed to a man. “Isn’t that precisely what’s happened over the centuries to women’s ideas? And isn’t this precisely the erasure of their existence that gay and lesbian Jews continue to endure, to this day?”
Immersed as I am in the stories of the women of the Bible as research for my current works-in-progress (a novel Women of a New Moon and an essay collection Daughters of Eve), I can’t help but be reminded of Moses’s sister, the prophetess Miriam, who danced with timbrels and sang with joy for the Israelites’ redemption from Egyptian slavery. When she dared questioned Moses’s exclusive relationship with God, she was stricken with leprosy and exiled from the tribe for seven days. Yet, the Israelites waited for her return before proceeding on their long journey toward the Promised Land, because she was one of their own, and she belonged with them.
Jews have been marginalized and persecuted throughout history. The thought that we might reject any of our own feels grotesquely wrong. Instead, I choose to see the orange as a symbol of the true joyous meaning of the seder, where all are welcome. Traditionally, our doors are kept open during the seder meal for anyone to join in the celebration of our freedom and to express our solidarity with all who have been or are now slaves, with any who have felt like strangers in a strange land. How much more that must be for our fellow Jews of all genders.
So, yes, this CIS-gender woman continues to embrace my identification with the Passover orange with a sense of joy, hope and community.
What in your life experiences has made you feel like the orange on the seder plate?