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The Jerusalem Post - Pessah Supplement
The Jerusalem Post - Pessah Supplement
The Jerusalem Post

It's a women's seder
Marilyn Henry joins women in New Jersey as they celebrate Pessah with a different kind of HaggadaVivian Kanig has had the traditional experience with a traditional Pessah Seder.

"I remember, beginning immediately after Purim, making lists, shopping, cleaning the house from top to bottom, changing dishes, preparing all the ritual foods, and cooking the traditional dishes," she said.

"Then, on Seder night, the men would be seated at the head of the table that the women had so carefully set, and they would lead the Seder, taking the illustrious part of the head of the household. "The women would be alert to bring to the table all the ritual objects and foods on cue," said Kanig, the director of adult education at the Jewish Community Center in Tenafly, New Jersey. Kanig recounted that tale recently to some 350 sympathetic women who crowded into the social hall of the Bergen County JCC to celebrate their third annual women's Seder. It was one of an estimated 100 such events that were expected to be held across the US this month, giving women a role in Pessah beyond cleaning and cooking.

In the traditional Haggada, women are not mentioned, so the women's Seders use specially written Haggadot that focus on the role of Jewish women in the Exodus and in Jewish history, and adapt rituals to be specifically meaningful to women. In this Exodus tale, Miriam, the sister of Moses, is more significant than her brother. Special versions of "Dayenu" address women's concerns. The ritual four cups of wine honor four Jewish women.

In lieu of the questions from the four sons, there are questions from four daughters. And the plagues, from which women are spared, include poverty, homophobia, infertility, breast cancer, domestic violence, and recalcitrant husbands who refuse to give their wives a religious divorce. Instead of a cup for Elijah, each Seder table features Miriam's cup in recognition of Miriam and her well. Miriam is the "symbol of our redemption," says the Bergen Haggada, and her cup "can also anticipate the time when all people will be cherished as equals, a time when no one shall oppress another."

A DIVERSE crowd gathered at the JCC, across the Hudson River from Manhattan. It was not a radical event; it attracted middle-class suburban women: mothers and daughters, rabbis and

homemakers, retired and professional women - lawyers, social worker, sales managers, and teachers. Leah Richter, one of the organizers, said she envisioned the Seder as an educational tool to bring to women in Bergen County what was available in New York.

The "matriarch" of women's Seders is held in Manhattan and uses a Haggada created by the Jewish Women's Project, which is associated with the group Ma'ayan, a Jewish feminist group on the Upper West Side. The New York Seder is so popular that it draws more than 1,000 women, and must be held over several evenings.

The event was started by the so-called "Seder sisters," a small group of prominent New York feminists including Gloria Steinem, who held their own Seder in the late 1970s. There were some skeptics in Bergen County when Richter broached the idea for the first Seder more than three years ago. Many Jewish women's groups were against it, and said they didn't understand why there was a need for a women's Seder, Richter said.

"We didn't want to replace the Seder," said Richter. "This is an educational tool, a way for Jewish women, who have always been the link between the past and the future, to learn." And of some of the original skeptics, she said: "Now they think it is the greatest thing since jelly beans."

The women's Seders are held two weeks before Pessah. The date is chosen, in part, to ensure that the event will not interfere with holiday preparations at home, and in part to give the participants time to revise their own Haggadot with material from the women's Haggada.

RICHTER, an attorney from Englewood, New Jersey, said that her interest in organizing the Seder stemmed from her experience in a two-year adult Jewish education program at the JCC whose curriculum was developed by the Florence Melton Center at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "I suddenly realized in taking the Melton class that I knew almost nothing about the Exodus," said Richter, the mother of two adult sons. "Where were the wives, the daughters, the sisters? "Most Jews know Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. How could I not know Leah?" Richter said of her namesake. "But who knew of Yocheved, Batya?"

The sponsors were local chapters of Hadassah, Women's American ORT, the National Council of Jewish Women, and Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative synagogues. Although women's Seders are gaining in popularity, they are not universally embraced. The Bergen County Seder, for instance, had a notable dearth of Orthodox women, and there were no Orthodox institutions among the sponsors.

But the rejection is not limited to the Orthodox, nor to women of a particular age. Some women object to the "modernity," and want to adhere to the standard text. Others say they do not need a special Seder for women because they do not feel excluded from the traditional Haggada. The Bergen Country group wrote its Haggada with material culled from other women's Haggadot, supplementing that with material, prayers and music based on its own interests. The group revises its Haggada each year, which it sees as developing Midrash.

"That is how we enlighten each other; in each age, the stories are retold for that age," Richter said.

THE REVISIONS also allow the group to honor different women each year, some from history, some from modern times.

This year's honoree, to whom the fourth cup of wine was dedicated, was Alice Shalvi, the founder and leader of the Israeli feminist movement. Many of the women at the Seder had never heard of Shalvi, and the dedication to her was seen as part of the Seder's educational mission. The women's Seder has become one of the biggest events at the Bergen County JCC, and it has spawned other educational programs for women, including a "day of study" on "how women talk to God."

It also is believed to attract more women to participate in Jewish communal life. That is the case for Richter. "It has made me more eager to be involved in the community of Jewish women."

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