Passover Pesach

The Roundabout Tale of the Orange on the Seder Plate

The orange on the seder plate is a newer tradition in the Passover seder, which especially speaks of the balance between the old and the new. This tradition has come to symbolize for some feminism and the equality of women in Judaism.

I remember the first time my aunt put an orange on the seder plate.  I think I was in rabbinical school at the time, and it was a powerful symbol, as we perceived at the time, of women in the rabbinate.  I was extremely appreciative of the gesture at the time—and that my family was embracing the idea (and not just when I insisted on my parents putting one there when the seder was at our house).  And I’ve come to be increasingly appreciative of the orange on the seder plate, even as I’ve learned more about how it came to be—and what it truly symbolizes.

The story, though, is not as we first heard it.  The actual tale, from Susannah Heschel’s point of view, comes from an experience she had at Oberlin College in the 1980’s, where she was shown an early feminist Haggadah which suggested including a crust of bread on the seder plate, as a sign of solidarity with Jewish lesbians. She changed the tradition to an orange—symbolizing the fruitfulness of Jewish life when all are included and contribute to the community—and also the pits of hate that should be spit out. She broadened the definition to include all who are marginalized in Jewish life. To her, the crust of bread implied that those who were other were somehow chameitz—that they violated the spirit of Judaism like bread is forbidden on Pesach.

Over time, the story itself transformed into the legend of a women speaking in Florida, at which a man heckled from the audience, saying, “A woman belongs on the bimah as much as an orange on the seder plate.”

As Heschel reflects, “A woman’s words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn’t that precisely what’s happened over the centuries to women’s ideas?”

But the story of this story gets even more interesting—the women who wrote that Haggadah at Oberlin wrote recently about their version, in which they shared that they had never put the bread on the seder plate.

Instead, they took the crust of bread concept from a short story, and transformed it into leaving a blank space on the seder plate, “A Makom (place) on our seder plate for all who have been condemned and excluded because of fear or ignorance.”

In Heschel’s telling of the story, the act of the students was erased, even in an act of attempting to be inclusive.   And so this orange becomes a symbol of those who have been erased…and also the idea of how stories change over time…a symbol, perhaps, of the very idea of the balance of our sacred obligation not to change and that which demands change.

Rabbi Elisa Koppel serves Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE. 


#BlogExodus 4 Nisan: The Ones Who Have Helped Me To Grow

Yesterday morning, Rabbi Aaron Panken, President of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the school at which most of us here at the CCAR Convention—indeed, the vast majority of Reform clergy—went to seminary (and at which I am also currently in Cohort 6 of the Executive Masters program to get a Master of Arts in Religious Education) addressed the Conference at our annual alumni breakfast. We had the chance to study some text, and then we got to what is, to me, the best part.

There are few things that will get hundreds of rabbis, many of whom stayed up much later than usual catching up with friends, awake and eager at 7:!5 am. This is one of them. During the breakfast, as we do every year, we engaged in Roll Call, which Rabbi Panken described this morning as, “That interesting ritual that should be fun.” The origins of this ritual are a mystery, but are steeped in tradition: each year, a representative of the Alumni Association calls out each year of classes ordained from HUC-JIR, and everyone present from that class stands. From the current students who are present to those who were ordained through the decades (at least those who got up for breakfast). Each class stands, to applause from the group as a whole—from current students all the way to someone ordained 60 years ago. Many classes show spirit by waving to each other or cheering. Some classes are gathered together at a table or two—others are spread out, and you can see that some of them have only just seen each other. It’s amazing to see the generations of rabbis, gathered together through a collective memory, while celebrating the unique relationship of each class. We honor our own experience, as well as the chain of tradition that links every person in that room.

The night before, our class had also gathered for dinner (as many classes did)—those ordained in our year, as well as those with whom we shared our year in Israel. I hadn’t seen some of these people since our Israel year, 21 years ago. Others I see regularly. But all of us being together—that’s something truly special. All of us together at breakfast, a significant way to celebrate our connection.

Each year, this breakfast is a reminder: I absolutely come to convention for the inspiration and the learning. To learn from some of the great minds of our time. To gain wisdom from incredible speakers. To delve into text study and ideas in a way that I don’t often get to. To grapple with the challenges of contemporary life. To commiserate over challenges, and argue in debates for the sake of Heaven. To pray in a truly unique and holy community. But, really, if I’m honest, more than all that, it’s about sitting side by side with my colleagues.

It’s an amazing thing, this connection, and one of the quirkier aspects of what is, in myriad ways, a quirky career. As we train for this, we spend 1 year in a foreign country, engaged in an immersive learning environment, followed by 4 years with 1/3 of those people—in a really small and really intense graduate school program. And then we all get scattered around the country (and even further). Thanks to technology, we have a sense of what is going on in each others’ lives—and maybe we see some of these people at other times during the year at other events—but this is the time when we all come together.

The chance to see these classmates, these friends, once a year is precious. Some come nearly every year—others only occasionally. In each case, the convention offers a chance to have an annual reunion of sorts. To catch up with people who have been with us from the very beginning of our careers. To see how we have each grown (and how we haven’t changed). To laugh at old memories. To cry at shared sadnesses. To offer each other a sense of camaraderie and collegiality which is often hard to find.

And, yes, to make connections with those from other generations. To meet senior colleagues whose work we have admired…to see people we went to camp with…to see the rabbis from our own formative years—when we became inspired by Judaism in a way that made us want to become rabbis…to see students who have themselves followed this path.

It’s an amazing thing this annual convention and the conference that forms it. It’s a chance for us to connect to our own experience, to reflect on where we have been and where we are and where we are going, and to remind ourselves of all the folks with whom we get to share this journey.

Rabbi Elisa Koppel serves Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE.