A new world order

"I've never heard of or seen such a thing," says Miri, a resident of Caesarea, of the women's Seder at the Caesarea Community Center. Sponsored by Hamidrasha, a center for the education and renewal of Jewish life in Israel, the event combines a traditional Seder with modern Israeli poems, songs and parodies for an evening for religious and secular women (and men, if they wish) to explore their common ground as Jews, Israelis and women. To enter the women's Seder is to enter a new world, created especially for the evening. A horse-shoe of purple chairs several rows deep surrounds a lush carpet strewn with brightly colored pillows in front of a low stage decorated with artificial sunflowers and greenery. The decorations create a cheerful, feminine atmosphere despite the low ceilings and harsh neon lights. The stage is set with two traditional candlesticks with long, white tapers and three trendy pillar candles in warm shades of red and orange. A six-piece, all-female musical group of guitar, recorder, accordion and drums check their sound on stage, then retire backstage to change clothes. They come back wearing different shades of white, gray and soft green. Unlike a traditional Seder, this one starts with dinner. The women, arriving in bright outfits and abundant jewelry, file through a buffet of pumpkin soup with crusty bread (after all, it's not Pessah yet), mixed salads with various cheeses and several souffles. People linger over their food, mingling and chatting, and the Seder begins nearly an hour late. A table of desserts and hot drinks, hidden by an ethnic-looking cloth and intended for after the Seder, is ransacked with little reservation. The women settle down and open their 23-page Haggada created for the evening. Some are religious, some secular. Some have just finished army or national service, others have recently become grandmothers - again. They live in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Caesarea and small communities and kibbutzim around the country. There are a few Americans present, femmes who have attended more than one women's Seder, and they have brought along their Israeli friends - women, like Miri, who have never heard of a women's Seder. A significant number have just finished an all-day hike on the Israel Trail, from Hadera to Caesarea, as part of a nine-week hike, also sponsored by Hamidrasha for secular-religious Jewish-Israeli dialogue. These participants are recognizable because they are still wearing their hiking clothes: dirty, white tee-shirts with the slogan "Command reconciliation." The Seder begins with welcoming words, candle-lighting (the traditional candles are lit, the pillars are already burning) and a blessing. Raya Ofner, who is present with her husband Yossi, lights the candles. The couple lost their son, Avi, in the 1997 helicopter crash tragedy and they have chosen to commemorate his memory by sponsoring various religious-secular dialogue activities, including the Israel Trail hike. Other tasks for the evening are allocated, and each woman introduces herself before she reads. They raise the first glass of wine and toast the fellowship of women. They pass around Miriam's cup, an enormous glass goblet, and each woman contributes a few drops of water to fill it. They read a passage about all the women who influenced Moses and made it possible for him to lead the Israelites out of slavery: Yocheved, Miriam, Pharaoh's daughter and Tzipporah. They sing modern, Israeli songs about spring, and verses from Song of Songs about the budding renewal of life in this season. The four questions receive a new interpretation: "Why is this night different from all other nights? This night is not different from all other nights. On all other nights, I promise myself that tomorrow I will eat less, I will tell another story to my children and I will be a little bit kinder. Tonight is just the same." Traditional Seder texts have been rewritten in the feminine conjugation (rather than the more commonly-used Hebrew masculine) and given new interpretation. "And you shall tell your son and your daughter on that day: no matter what you do or fail to do, I love you very much." Many ideas for this Seder come from a book, published by Hamidrasha, called Suggestion for the Seder. The book, which was available for sale at the event, is designed to help Israeli families, particularly secular families who may be daunted by the task of putting together a Seder, to plan an evening that combines traditional Seder motifs with modern writings to create a meaningful and relevant ritual for Israelis. Hamidrasha also runs seminars for those who would like guidance in putting together their own Seder. Hila Tuchmacher-Mishali, an organizer at Hamidrasha, speaks enthusiastically of the Israeli response to the program that brings religious and secular women together for study once a week. "Secular and religious Israelis learn side-by-side and they learn from one another," she explains. "Secular Israelis learn to claim Jewish religious texts as their own, and as relevant in their lives. Religious women learn to think about feminism and how they can pursue more rights within a religious framework. It's very productive." Hopefully, says Hila, participants in tonight's Seder will leave inspired and feeling connected to their Jewish heritage and traditions at the same time as they identify as women in an embracing, feminine community.