Letty Cottin Pogrebin on 37 Years of the Feminist Seder

Author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine, photographed in January 2012 in her home office in New York.

Nobody needs three seders. God seems to think two are enough. Yet this Sunday, the third night of Passover, I will attend a third seder— a feminist seder—for the 37th year in a row, because I have come to feel that the holiday is incomplete without it.

Why is this night different from all other nights?

Because on this night our service is drawn from the feminist Haggadah written by the late Esther Broner with Naomi Nimrod, which includes lines like, “We were told that we were brought out of Egypt from the house of bondage, but we were still our fathers’ daughters, obedient wives, and servers of our children, and were not yet ourselves.”

On this night, we become ourselves.

Photo: The Bilerico Report

On this night, 20 or so women sit on pillows on the floor at a seder “table” spread with all the traditional foods and symbols, except that there’s an orange on the seder plate—a feminist rebuttal to the rabbi who once said, “A woman belongs on the bimah [platform in a synagogue where the Torah is read] like an orange belongs on the seder plate.”

On this night, after each of us introduces herself by her matrilineage (“I am Letty, daughter of Ceil, daughter of Jenny, alias Shayndel”), we bring into our midst the mothers and grandmothers who cooked and served but never reclined, and the millions more women in the texts and history of the Jewish people who are unseen, unsung, and unnamed.

On this night, we all recline. We wash each other’s hands. We ask the Four Questions of women. One year one question was, “Why did my brother get a fancy bar mitzvah in a hotel ballroom when I got a little kiddush [blessing over the wine] and sponge cake in the synagogue basement?” We recite the Plagues of Women—of which there are always more than 10— and we speak about the Four Daughters, female archetypes who yearn to know about their past.

On this night, not one but two goblets stand at the center of our table—Elijah’s cup, heralding our ultimate redemption and filled, as always, with wine, and Miriam’s cup, symbolizing sustenance and filled with water, the source of life.

Our Haggadah (order of service) gives proper credit to Moses’s sister, Miriam, the prophetess who led the Israelite women across the Red Sea with timbrels and with song.

According to a famous midrash (rabbinic commentary), when the Pharaoh condemned Jewish babies to death, Miriam’s father lost all hope for the future and stopped cohabiting with Miriam’s mother. Though only 7 years old, Miriam argued for life. She convinced her parents to stay together and to continue having children. The result was the birth of Moses.

Moreover, it was Miriam who placed her baby brother in a basket in the bulrushes, and when the Pharoah’s daughter found him, it was Miriam who put forward the baby’s own mother as his wet-nurse. The traditional telling of the Passover story barely mentions Miriam, but on this night we thank her for transgressing the boundaries of female submissiveness. We bring her to life, this rebel and visionary, for without Miriam there would have been no Moses.

A Women’s Seder: Esther Broner, at center raising a cup, celebrates seder at the home of Bea Kreloff and Edith Isaac-Rose. To her right are Edith Isaac-Rose and Adrienne Cooper, to her left are Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Martha Ackelsberg. (Via The Forward: http://bit.ly/HPPp0L )

Besides Miriam there are other boldly disobedient women to whom we owe the life of Moses and the destiny of the Jewish people.  We honor Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who, by delivering Moses, violated the Pharaoh’s order to murder all first-born Jewish sons; and Yocheved, Moses’s mother, who gave up her baby so that he might survive; and Batya, the Pharaoh’s daughter, a righteous Gentile who disobeyed her father’s decree and adopted a Hebrew boy who’d been marked for murder.

At the feminist seder, we don’t praise good girls, we praise rebellious women, wise women, quiet heroines, and brash leaders. We laud scholars of the rabbinic period, entrepreneurial women of the Middle Ages, modern women suffragists, union organizers, martyrs of the Holocaust, anti-war protestors, civil rights workers, poets, stalwarts of the women’s movement.

Typically, a small group of us (the “Seder Sisters”) starts the planning process about two months ahead. We choose the seder’s theme (the topic about which all participants will speak in turn) and we hand out food assignments. (In 1979, according to my notes, Gloria Steinem brought the Manischewitz wine and Bella Abzug, the fiery Congresswoman in the wide-brimmed hats, brought the chicken.)

In 1990, our theme was “Omission, Absence, and Silence,” by which we meant men’s silencing of women and women’s self-censorship.  Another year it was “Our Mentors,” a nod to those who had influenced our development as women or as Jews. On the seder’s seventh anniversary, we talked about the power of sevens in our faith tradition and in our lives.

One of my favorite themes was “Our Personal Chametz”—the stuff women have to get rid of before we can “pass over” into freedom.  As each participant called out her chametz (self-deprecation, loneliness, passivity, jealousy, obsession with body image, shyness, fear of failure) she poured a little grain whisky from a beaker into a large pan and when the pan was full, we set the liquid aflame, symbolically burning the behaviors that hobble us and hold us back.

This year’s theme, “Honoring our [Seder] Mothers: Shaping and Reshaping the Future,” will, I’m sure, inspire encomiums to different women who mothered us into being, but foremost among them will be our beloved seder leader and co-founding seder mother, Esther Broner, who died in June.

Writer, playwright, social-justice activist, inventor of rituals, Esther was not just the co-author of its Hagaddah, she was our spiritual guru, the creator of our seder order, the high priestess who sat at the head of the table in her long white robe and embroidered kippa (skullcap), who blessed us with her sparkly wands and whispery incantations, who led us out of mitzrayim (Egypt, the narrow place) and made us feel strong and whole.

At the end of every seder, we always stand in a circle, wrap ourselves in a motley-looking rope of tied-together lavender fabric scraps which we call “the sacred shmatta,” and sing a song of peace.  After Bella died, we added two rituals to bring her presence into our circle: We put a big-brimmed hat on an empty chair and we sing “Tayere Malke” (Dear Queen), the Yiddish drinking song she loved.

This year, I’m not sure what ritual we will devise to honor the irreplaceable Esther—maybe we’ll pull up a second empty chair and put Esther’s embroidered kippa on it. Then again, the entire enterprise is her memorial, for without Esther I doubt that our seder would have survived 37 years. From now on it’s up to us to keep alive her proud affirmation that Passover is also about us.

At a feminist seder in 1983, Phyllis Chesler unfurls what would become known as the “Sacred Shmatta”. The Sacred Shmatta was used to bind the women together. (Photo: Phyllis-Chesler.com)