Freedom for all people was the theme of a women's seder this week at the Oakland Mills Meeting House. Woman-oriented and contemporary, and discussing current scourges as AIDS and pollution likened to the plagues that befell ancient Egypt, the seder's modern tone marked a contrast to the traditional seder service.
With the National Council of Jewish Women, Howard County section, as host, the seder focused on the struggles and triumphs of women in humankind's fight for freedom, with an emphasis on the often overlooked role of Jewish women in the Passover story. Fifty-three women attended this female-only event, led by Columbia Jewish Congregation's cantor, Jan Morrison.
"We celebrate this women's seder to free ourselves of the restrictions placed on us as women," said Morrison, reading from the Haggadah, or liturgy, prepared by the National Council of Jewish Women and revised for the service by Howard County residents. Telling the Passover story from a woman's perspective, the Haggadah highlighted such women as the "righteous" midwives Shifra and Puah, who defied Pharaoh by caring for, not killing, newborn Israelites.
The courage of Moses' mother, Joheved, who saved his life, and his sister, Miriam, who watched over him, also was remembered, along with the kindness of the Pharaoh's unnamed daughter, who adopted him. This seder made a point that might be lost in more patriarchal versions: If women had not courageously saved the babies, Moses would not have lived to lead his people to freedom. "Israel's deliverance," said Morrison, was "a reward for Israel's righteous women."
In addition to such traditional seder elements as eggs, bitter herbs and Elijah's cup, which heralds the coming of the Messianic age, the women's seder added new ritual objects meant to celebrate women. Miriam's cup was placed alongside Elijah's cup, as a reminder that the water from her well sustained the Jews during their journey to freedom. An orange added to the seder plate symbolized women's right to an equal place in Jewish sacred life.
"The [traditional] seder revolves around the men," Nancy Goldstein said. "The wise sons ask the questions. There is no mention of women. This is a very different approach."
Added Phyllis Nash: "This is wonderful for women. I grew up not knowing what the Passover seder was all about. I am a Jewish woman who is a feminist, and so are many of my friends. This doesn't mean we burn our bras. I have a husband [and have done traditional things]. What we emphasize is that we all have something to offer."
Noting that the word seder means order, Nash explained that a seder is made of parts that come in a set order. "Probably the really Orthodox wouldn't be happy with the woman's seder," she said, "but we do every essential part. As long as it includes the mandatory parts, such as the plagues, it's OK."
In the woman's seder, the traditional plagues that fell on Egypt, such as frogs and locusts, have been updated to reflect contemporary ills, such as "bloodshed by handguns," "toxic substances that pollute the Earth," "the plague of hunger in the midst of plenty," "the disfigurement of xenophobia, racism, homophobia," and babies who die from AIDS, drug addiction and violence.
In another modern turn, the seder celebrated courageous women who fought against the Holocaust, both named and unnamed, and remembered the 1943 Jewish revolt against the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto. Listeners were reminded that the freedom the Israelites sought from Egypt is not different from the freedom all oppressed people seek.
"Freedom is at the core of life," the Haggadah says. Freedom is as costly today as when the Israelites complained of their deprivations in the desert and wished they were back in the luxuries of Egypt.
For modern Jewish women, oppression has often been the tradition of being denied a voice in a traditionally patriarchal religious hierarchy, though the seder celebrated the many advances Jewish women have made.
"I love women. I love the camaraderie of women doing something," said Judee Iliff of the Columbia Jewish Congregation, who attended the seder with her daughter Laura. "I like being served the meal instead of serving it. That's a big part of the traditional seder, and I do that and enjoy that, but working full time and fitting in the preparation takes a lot of forethought."
Goldstein agreed. "The [traditional] focus would never be on women this way. It's very enlightening and gives me a tremendous feeling of inclusion."