The Orange on My Seder Table

Near the opening of the Passover Seder we read the words “Let all who are hungry come in and eat.”  Nobody ought to go hungry – all the more so on Pesach.  But are “all” people really welcome to the Seder?  Does the Jewish community really remember that we, ourselves, were once strangers in a culture not our own?
I know a couple who met on Sukkot in Venice. At the Habad meal the women were asked to sit at the extension of the Sukkah table, which protruded outside the Sukkah. This was to be certain that all of the men were fully inside.  The friend opted to sit with the women, those that he felt had been less than fully welcome, across from him he met his future bride.
We continue to celebrate a tradition that slights the role of women even as they we central to the events of the Exodus.
For most of us the Seder is spent with friends and with family. Every effort is made to accommodate those with nowhere to go.  But do we really want everybody to have a place at the table? Do we truly wish that all people feel free on Seder evening?
This season I have spent too much time with people who are not welcomed.  I have spoken with Yotzei B’Sheayla (those who have left the observant world behind them) who may no longer cross the threshold of their parent’s home.
I have met intermarried couples who will never enjoy a meal again in their parent’s homes.
I have met Jews by Choice, of African-American decent, who have been barred from making Aliyah only because of skin color, thus they may not join in Seder with other Israelis in their true home.
I have met members of the Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender community who feel as though they suffer rejection as they struggle to find a place in the Jewish community.
It is for this reason that I would urge those who are willing, to supplement the usual Pesach Seder symbols with some others that have become a tradition on my table and on the table of so many others who wish to experience the fullness of the holiday as we read the story of the Exodus from slavery to freedom.
On our table (I am blessed to share Seder with dear friends in Jerusalem who take seriously the challenges Passover presents) we will have a Kos Miriam (Miriam’s Cup). This especially decorated cup is filled with water.
According to the Midrash a miraculous well accompanied the Jewish People throughout their journey in Sinai, providing them with water. This well was given by God to the prophet Miriam, to honor her bravery and her devotion. The waters became a source of sustenance and healing. Miriam, her words, her dance, her song, gave the Jews the faith to overcome the hardships of the Exodus. Miriam''s cup is filled with water to honor her role - the role of women- in the move from slavery to freedom. Like Miriam, Jewish women have been central in all generations for the continuity of the Jewish People- however often we forget this.  So, let every Seder table have a Kos Miriam and may we all honor the key role women have played, and continue to play, in our lives.
An orange will be found on our Seder table. Why an orange you may ask?
The some of the items found on the Seder table are intended to arouse the curiosity of the participants.  By now, most old-timers know the basics. But new symbols raise new questions.  The orange is one such relatively new symbol.
The story of the origins of the “Orange of the Seder Table” has taken on a life of its own.  Maybe this is how it should be. Several apocryphal versions have emerged. The true story is spelled out by the noted Jewish scholar Susannah Heschel.
In the early 1980s, the Hillel Foundation invited me to speak on a panel at Oberlin College. While on campus, I came across a Haggadah that had been written by some Oberlin students to express feminist concerns. One ritual they devised was placing a crust of bread on the Seder plate, as a sign of solidarity with Jewish lesbians, a statement of defiance against a rebbetzin’s pronouncement that, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate.” At the next Passover, I placed an orange on our family''s Seder plate. During the first part of the Seder, I asked everyone to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit, and eat it as a gesture of solidarity with Jewish lesbians and gay men, and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. Bread on the Seder plate brings an end to Pesach-- it renders everything chametz. And it suggests that being lesbian is being transgressive, violating Judaism. I felt that an orange was suggestive of something else: 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. When lecturing, I often mentioned my custom as one of many new feminist rituals that have been developed in the last twenty years. Somehow, though, the typical patriarchal maneuver occurred: My idea of an orange and my intention of affirming lesbians and gay men were transformed. Now the story circulates that a man said to me that a woman belongs on the bimah as an orange on the Seder plate. A woman''s words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is simply erased. 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?
-         Excerpted from an Email from Professor Susannah Heschel  
Many in the LGBTQ community shall be fortunate enough to celebrate the Seder with family. Others will do so at Gay community Centers so that they will not have to feel alone.
The Orange can serve to remind us of the words with which we opened the Seder: Let ALL who are hungry come in and eat.”
When the Jewish people left Egypt they abandoned the comfort of their familiar – albeit oppressive – lives. Only in the wilderness did they begin to experience the true presence of God. For gays and lesbians today, coming out is also a spiritual journey, perhaps in many ways akin to the coming out of our ancestors, many years ago, that we celebrate at Pesach.
May our abliguritions be accompanied by a deeper sense of purpose.
May this be the year that all people, regardless of gender, race, nationality, religious affiliation, find the true meaning of freedom.