Turning the (Seder) tables

How wonderful it is to live in a country that gathers up its poor and huddled masses who now can breathe free.

Raising a glass at the Turning the Tables Seder (photo credit: TTT)
Raising a glass at the Turning the Tables Seder
(photo credit: TTT)
Ah, Passover. The cleaning, the cooking and the endless clichés about kitniyot that culminate in us sinking gratefully into the comfort zone of showered, shining familiar faces around the Seder table. We smile at our loved ones as ritual swooshes us into the well-worn routine, and feel suffused with gratitude for life’s goodness.
But what if the man leading the Seder feast – your father, maybe, or uncle, or brother – raped you repeatedly throughout your childhood? What if the parents running the show sat shiva for you when they discovered you were gay, and forbade you to ever darken their door again, even on a hag? Where do you go? If you are one of Israel’s 12,000 women who have fallen into the sex-trade you most likely spend Seder night on the streets. Your family has either cut all connections, or you cannot face spooning chicken soup into your mouth across from someone who has abused you.
But it’s tough to be alone, when the whole of Am Yisrael, from rock stars to rocket scientists, are all cozying up to four cups of wine and kneidlach in the warm bosom of their families. Alternative Seders for the lonely and the homeless can help ease the pain; for the last three years Turning the Tables has hosted 50 women on the night before Passover.
TtT is a refuge for prostitutes, some still working, some in rehabilitation. In a small studio in south Tel Aviv run by Lilach Ben-Moshe, a young fashion-editor-turned-angel, who dreamed up the project of running design and sewing classes for the sad humans who littered the sidewalk on her daily route to work, sex-slaves can literally stitch their lives back together by learning to create clothes. A daily hot meal, vocational training, companionship and care have helped many of these women rehabilitate themselves. And Erev-Erev Passover – the night before the Seder – they celebrate this release from bondage, wearing beautiful ensembles that they have crafted.
Having a Seder with a room full of women in or exiting prostitution is a surreal experience. Zeev Kochman, owner of Hapina Hayeruka restaurant in Hayarkon Park, pulls out all the stops. The beautifully set table is laden with a cornucopia of Israel’s goodness: cheeses and salads and fish and chocolate; wine is not served because of addiction issues – four cups of grape juice are drunk instead.
There is at least one perk of holding a Seder before Passover: hot crusty bread and haroset is a winning combination. That’s just one of the “ma nishtanas” between this and any other Seder night; another is that you can drive home, no matter how dati (religiously observant) you may be.
Yael Huldai, wife of Tel Aviv’s mayor, facilitated this festivity; she attends each year. Husband Ron pops in to deliver a traditional toast and then leaves; the evening is for women only, to mellow in a safe space, tastefully attired, with scrumptious food and plenty of it.
And yet.
“Prior abuse is a precondition for prostitution,” says Leemor Reiner-Segal, psychotherapist and social worker at TtT. “Only someone who has been physically, emotionally or sexually battered will turn to this sad profession; only someone with a warped sense of self can do this work.” I looked at the women clinking glasses of Tirosh as they thanked God and declared that if He had only taken us out of Egypt without carrying out judgments against the oppressors, it would have sufficed. I tried to calculate the accumulation of pain spinning around that room; mascara and glimmering gloss couldn’t entirely eradicate the sadness still hovering in the eyes and lips. It is unlikely that judgments were carried out against the men who molested them; smaller mercies would have to do. More than most these ex-sex slaves can extol the festival of freedom; they don’t need wise or wicked sons to debate the relevance of liberation.
They have been there, in metaphorical and sometimes even physical chains, and can viscerally feel on their skin freedom from fear, hunger, abuse and self-loathing. Tonight they rejoice with Rabbi Orna Pilz as she recites from the traditional Haggada which has been sensitively adapted by Haggit Akerman: Not with a strong hand / And not with an outstretched arm / not with great terror / nor with signs and wonders / But with hesitation and small steps / with banishing the darkness and gentle determination / with intention and persistence and love / carrying small signs like crows’ feet on faces showing the passing of time / changing seasons and my body that transforms all my longing … thus I come out from Egypt.
It’s powerful stuff.
And what says the gay son, the one whose father intoned kaddish for him, and forbade him to enter the family home? He found a place at Ilan Abel’s alternative Seder, held in Kochav Yair. Abel, a third-year communications student at IDC in Herzliya and a counselor in IGY – Israel’s Gay Youth organization – was invited to many Seder nights when his parents left to celebrate Passover with a second son studying medicine abroad. “But I decided to hold my own celebration at home,” he explains, “and invite anyone who didn’t have somewhere to go.” A Facebook post brought together the rejected haredi, as well as children of divorced parents who couldn’t fact the stress of choosing a mother over a father; a child who became estranged from her stepfather after her own father died; and an Arab who had never experienced a Seder night and was interested to see. “Our Haggada focused on the fact that as a Jewish person you are never alone,” says Abel, who invited the crew to come and cook the meal together prior to the evening celebrations. “It was all simply amazing.”
My own Seder seemed strangely staid, after that, thank the Lord, thank the Lord, thank the Lord. How wonderful it is to live in a country that gathers up its poor and huddled masses who now can breathe free. How much more wonderful it will be when there is no need for alternative evenings and each man and woman regardless of beliefs or sexuality, or anything else, can sit securely round the family table in peace and prosperity … imagine there’s a country.
Until then, here's hoping everyone had a hag sameah! 
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC. peledpam@gmail.com