In 1976, my mother, Phyllis Chesler, hosted the first feminist Passover Seder in North America in her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She co-led and co-founded the ritual with Esther Broner (who had held a feminist Seder in Haifa in 1975), and was joined by, among others, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Gloria Steinem, and Lily Rivlin.
The rituals these women created have had a lasting impact on how we think of the Seder and have spawned countless feminist, lesbian, and egalitarian rethinkings of our traditions and of the Haggadah. Best known, of course, is the tradition of the orange on the Seder plate originated by Susannah Heschel, who chose it as a symbol of inclusion for lesbian and gay Jews, and later all who have been marginalized in the Jewish community. In her original ritual, Heschel suggested spitting out the orange seeds as an act of spitting out homophobia in Judaism.
The feminist Seder was meant to give voice to “all the women whose voices were never heard on the Seder night,” and was needed because, as my mother has written, “women . . . had been rendered invisible to themselves.” Women were and still are hungry for female role models. My mother has, in fact, called these feminist rituals an important “first step out of Egypt,” while Pogrebin has noted that these rituals remediate a past wrong and serve as a “historical reclaiming.”
While these wonderful traditions have been carefully passed down to younger generations of women—the daughters of the “Seder Sisters”—including Eve and Liz Abzug and Abigail and Robin Pogrebin, my mother struggled with the insistence on a “male-free” environment and the refusal to include sons (and, eventually, men) at these feminist Seders. While my mother understood the need for gender separatism, she also understood the importance of eventually including boys at events led by women. In this vein, she asked, “How will the men of tomorrow ever be different if they don’t have memories of women as authoritative and tender?” Ultimately, she concluded her Seder sisters “were not wrong, but they were not right.”
I was allowed to attend one feminist Seder when I was 6 or 7 years old. In truth, my memories of it are limited, and are perhaps blended with my memories of these women and the events of my childhood more generally. The night would not have been different from any other night in my mind, as I grew up surrounded by these women, hearing their laughter, and their song, witnessing them command rooms and rallies.
This year, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg co-authored a reading of the Passover story with Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, emphasizing the heroic stories of the women—Yocheved, Shifra, Puah, Miriam, and Batya—who played a crucial role in the Exodus narrative. In her passage, she stresses that the “stories we tell our children shape what they believe to be possible” and concludes that retelling the stories of these women “reminds our daughters that with vision and the courage to act, they can carry forward the tradition those intrepid women launched.”
In her recent speech at the 2015 GLAAD Media Awards, Kerry Washington made a similar point, telling the crowd, “Having your story told as a woman, as a person of color, as a lesbian, or as a trans person or as any member of any disenfranchised community is sadly often still a radical idea. … There is enormous power in inclusive storytelling and inclusive representations.”
Indeed. But the power of inclusive storytelling and representations is greatly diminished if it is shared with only daughters and not sons. Here, the audience is as important as the story. I was fortunate enough to experience many Seders in my own home that incorporated women’s narratives and were led by women. If other young boys don’t experience the same, they won’t know what’s possible or be able to replicate more inclusive ceremonies.
In my family, we have a tradition of asking each person around the Seder table, “What is your Egypt this year?” which recognizes each participant’s story as we spiritually make our way out of Egypt. I propose not spitting out, but rather placing, orange seeds on our Seder plate. Let them represent the next generations to come—both sons and daughters—whom we hope germinate and sprout having heard all of our stories. For it is only when we all hear each of our stories that we will be able to obtain freedom.
Ariel Chesler is an attorney and writer in New York. He lives with his wife and two daughters, and one cat. He is the son of feminist author and psychologist Phyllis Chesler.