THE FIFTH COLUMN: Liberate your Passover

Seder was not supposed to be at a table, but on beds or mattresses on the floor, reclining on a pillow to the left and eating with your right.

REVELERS DIP in the Mediterranean Sea as they take part in a Gay Pride parade in Tel Aviv last year (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
REVELERS DIP in the Mediterranean Sea as they take part in a Gay Pride parade in Tel Aviv last year
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
On Passover, we celebrate the liberation of the people of Israel from enslavement in Egypt.
Therefore, many of the holiday’s traditions are designed to help us get in the spirit of liberation.
In the Haggada we ask: “Ma nishtana halaila hazeh mikol haleilot?” (“Why is this night different from all the other nights)? One of the answers is “Halaala hazeh kulanu mesubin” (“On this night we all recline”). Seder was not supposed to be at a table, but on beds or mattresses on the floor, reclining on a pillow to the left and eating with your right, which was how royalty ate in ancient Persia, Greece and Rome. At the Seder, everybody gets their hands washed by somebody else, which was a gesture reserved for high society as well.
Rich or poor, men and women of all walks of society – on this night we are all kings and queens, celebrating liberty from oppression.
These were the elements thought at the time to signify liberty, and to me, Passover is about striking a balance between celebrating a tradition, while incorporating elements that in each day and age symbolize what liberty means to us. The word “Haggada,” the book from which we read on Passover, comes from “Vehigadeta levincha” (“Tell your children” the story of the Exodus from Egypt). This is the perfect time to educate our children of the modern-day liberties still lacking and to think with them about who the slaves in Egypt needing salvation are today.
To do so, here are a few ideas to bring issues important to us to our Seder table:
The orange
The story goes that Prof. Susannah Heschel was giving a lecture on egalitarian Judaism, when an Orthodox man stood up and shouted that a woman has as much room on the bima (pulpit) as an orange has on the Seder plate. Thus, to support women’s rightful place in Jewish life, an orange is placed on the Seder plate.
Heschel debunks this story in her 2003 book, saying that the real story was that when she lectured at a Hillel, she came across a custom to place bread on the Seder plate in protest of LGBT exclusion. Opposed to the idea of equating LGBT people with hametz, she suggested replacing the bread with an orange, which has many segments, but all are included. She also points out the irony, by which the original story was changed to once again erase LGBT people, while her words were put in the mouth of a man.
Either way, an orange on the Seder plate can remind us of the necessity of inclusion of women and of LGBT people. All should be made welcome and equal around the Seder table.
The olives
The olive tree is an ancient symbol of hope and peace. Olive trees also play a prominent role in Palestinian agriculture and are frequently the target of settlers and the Israeli army.
Placing olives on the Seder plate has over the last few years become a symbol of our hope for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The crayons
“Ha lahma anya. Passover is a holiday of inclusion. We are asked to begin the Seder with our door open, inviting all who are hungry or would like to join. Having non-Jewish friends join the Seder, and then arriving at “Shfoch hamatcha al hagoyim asher lo yeda’ucha” (“Pour out thy wrath upon the nations that know thee not”) is a cringe-worthy moment. Many try to explain this away. I say: crayons. Sit with thy children in advance of the Seder, Haggada in hand, crayon in the other, and come up with fun alternatives.
Such an alternative was created in a 1521 Haggada attributed to the descendants of Rashi, who changed it to “Shfoch Ahavatcha” “Pour out your love” on the nations who have known you and on the kingdoms who call upon your name.
For they show loving-kindness to the seed of Jacob and they defend your people Israel from those who would devour them alive.
The asylum seeker
With more displaced people now around the world than in the aftermath of World War II, this will be relevant anywhere, and has been made especially relevant in Israel now, with our government’s horrendous intention to forcibly deport its asylum seekers to countries in Africa where it is clear their life will be in danger.
One could think perhaps of sand, or another bowl of salt water, or other similar symbols of the journey they made, but here’s a better idea: why not invite an actual asylum seeker? Asylum seekers in Israel made the journey from their home countries – Eritrea or Sudan – by foot, through the Sinai Desert.
I can think of nothing more appropriate for Passover than inviting an asylum seeker to come and share the story of their life and journey. At the same time, it’s an opportunity to fulfill the spirit of the holiday and make someone feel welcome for a day, amidst the very unwelcoming reality they are living in.
If you need help finding someone, The Miklat Israel initiative has begun a Passover project to connect families with asylum seekers. Search for “All Who Are Hungry” on Facebook if you’d like to participate and host.
PASSOVER IS meant to be made relevant to you, and to your children. There are many interesting Haggadot to be found: feminist, queer, vegan, as well as a wealth of ideas online for making the Seder your own.Do you have any interesting Passover customs you’ve collected? Please share them in the comments section below for others to get inspired! Thanks, and Hag Semeach!
The writer is the director of Amnesty International Israel and formerly worked for the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, Greenpeace and the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel. He can be reached at director@