The orange on the seder plate

Here's a great note from our friend Steven Goldstein, Chair and CEO of Garden State Equality.

For those of you observing Passover tonight, and for those of you of any faith or none, invited to a seder tonight or tomorrow night, there is an LGBT theme you may want to mention or at least be aware of.

Many progressive Jewish homes put an orange on the seder plate. The orange is a tradition only about 30 years old at a seder, itself a tradition thousands of years old in Judaism.

The story goes that Professor Susannah Heschel of Dartmouth, a progressive feminist Jewish studies scholar and daughter of one of the most famous rabbis in American Jewish history, created the idea of an orange on a seder plate to allow progressive Jewish families to show solidarity with women.

According to the story, Professor Heschel heard an Orthodox rabbi say that women belong on the bimah – the stage at a synagogue – as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate, i.e. not at all. So progressive Jewish homes like mine have put an orange on the seder plate ever since.

Well, it turns out the story behind on orange on the seder plate is an urban myth. Professor Heschel actually created the tradition of an orange on the seder plate as a symbol of solidarity with LGBT people. And until she pointed this out some years ago, many well-meaning progressive Jews, including me, didn’t know.

So if you’re at a seder and you see an orange on the seder plate, the discussion about it may not be correct. Of course, because we progressives support equality for everyone – there is no competition – at our seders the orange represents solidarity with women, LGBT people and particularly transgender people, people of color, the differently abled and other peoples denied equality.

If you’re interested in what Professor Heschel herself has to say about all this, here goes. This is from an email she sent around a while back…

“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 (not kosher for Passover).

“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?”

I have no doubt that if Professor Heschel told this story today, she would say LGBT rather than lesbian and gay.

I wish all observing Chag Sameach!



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