As a “new Jew,” a recent convert to Judaism, Desiree O’Clair was first exposed to the Passover seder a few years ago, at friends’ holiday tables. She then tried her hand at leading her own seders, and decided, “I have to learn how to do this properly.”
Blaze Ardman, a member of a loosely affiliated Jewish family who attends family seders every year, noticed that women’s roles in the Exodus story were “left out” of most Haggadot, and wanted to see if other women shared her feelings.
Miriam Ben-Dor, whose father was a former kibbutznik, attended seders where, when the Torah’s “forefathers” were mentioned, her feminist mother and grandmother always added. “There were also foremothers,” she said.
This year, in the weeks before Passover, O’Clair, Ardman and Ben-Dor will be adding their women’s voices, literally, to how the seder will be staged at their synagogue, Woodstock Jewish Congregation, in Ulster County.
They are participants in a series of workshops — doubling as Torah study groups and impov sessions — that are preparing a unique Haggadah that the congregation will present at its communal seder on the evening of Saturday, April 4.
“In the Voice of Our Mothers: A New Way to Tell the Story of Passover,” scripted and photocopied and distributed at the seder, will be an acted-out Haggadah. It will present, in addition to the Haggadah’s standard text, the perspectives of women who played a crucial part in the Torah’s story of slavery and deliverance, but whose names are absent from the traditional Haggadah.
The exact contents of the Haggadah are not known yet; they depend on the contributions of the participants in forthcoming workshops. But some of that content will include dialogue that reflects the imagined feelings of characters like Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, and Yocheved, the siblings’ mother, instead of readings about such biblical women, as in women’s seders that have gained popularity in recent decades, said Susan Rosen.
Rosen is founder of the Miriam’s Well holistic retreat center in Hudson Valley, which is sponsoring the workshops and Haggadah along with the congregation’s Lev Shalem retreat center.
She is one of three women behind “In the Voice of Our Mothers,” along with Carol Fox Prescott, a veteran actress and director, and Rabbi Aura Ahuvia, the congregation’s spiritual director.
“The Haggadah is an imagined conversation … all done in the feminine voice,” Rosen said. “It’s just Midrash,” in the style of interpretive rabbinical commentary on the Torah. “This is strictly Jewish. It’s a dvar Torah on Passover. It will be tightly scripted. People are waiting for this. They’ve been waiting for a long time.”
About a dozen women are participating in the workshops. Sitting in a circle in one of the synagogue’s classrooms, the women are encouraged to discuss the women of the Bible, and how the acts of the Exodus story’s overlooked women — in most Haggadahs, at least — provide a lesson for contemporary lives.
“We all know that Moses is the hero of the Passover story,” a mission statement on the Lev Shalam website states. “Less well known is that Moses is surrounded by powerful, courageous women who ensure his destiny … Yocheved, Moses’s mother, who has the courage to give birth in the face of certain danger … Miriam, who skillfully guarantees her baby brother Moses’ survival.” Tziporah, Moses’ wife, and other women.
“Women make the Exodus story possible,” the website says.
“We feel that Judaism needed to hear these voices,” Rosen said. “Women were at Mount Sinai. God spoke to women. We helped build the [Jewish] nation.”
This approach attracted the workshops’ participants.
“I’m looking at the point of view of the midwives,” the Torah’s Shifra and Puah, who disobeyed Pharaoh’s command to kill first-born Israelites male infants, O’Clair said. “What must it have been like for them to make the decision that they were not going to kill the Jewish children? What fears did they have, what fears did they conquer?”
O’Clair, a writer who lives in Woodstock, said the actions of the midwives led her to ask at the workshops “how do we make ethical decisions in our lives? How do we as women support each other?”
Ardman, also a writer, who lives in nearby Rosendale, said that during the workshop she initiated a discussion of Pharaoh’s daughter — who rescued newborn Moses from a basket on the Nile and raised him as her son. “Did she know he was a Hebrew child? She’s a mystery,” Ardman said.
Ben-Dor, a resident of Tremper, said she is attracted to the story of her namesake, Miriam. “I always felt a close relationship to her story,” she said. Growing up in a feminist atmosphere, she said she earlier thought of writing her own version of the Haggadah, one that would bring in women’s voices.
Which is why she’s taken part in the workshops.
“The entire seder is in vocal form,” Rosen said. “Everyone reads. We are writing text that will be included in our Haggadah that people at the seder will go around the table and read, just as they do at traditional seders.”
Fox Prescott said the goal of the Haggadah that she and her two partners are creating “is to help us realize that the story is ours, that it is us who were slaves. The more we can put ourselves into the story, the more meaningful it becomes.”
The dramatic approach of the creators of “In The Voice of Our Mothers” follows in the spiritual footsteps of Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Storahtelling, Peter Pitzele’s Bibliodrama and Andrew Davies and Aaron Friedman’s Bible Players, all of which deal with biblical themes and characters through the medium of theater and improv.
For like-minded members of the Jewish community, who were uninspired by traditional readings of the Haggadah, Passover is becoming the holiday of artistic freedom.
“In many ways we share similar goals of making ancient stories feel relevant, modern and meaningful. Too often stories in our Haggadah feel distant and untouchable,” Davies, executive director of The Bible Players, said in an email. “When we read from a Haggadah we understand a story in our head. When we see a story brought to life it can often connect with our hearts. When we make biblical characters three-dimensional, with personalities and quirks, they feel just like us.
“When we honor the women of our past, we also honor the women of the present,” Davies said. “It’s important when looking at biblical stories to notice the characters whose voices we don’t get to hear.”
The workshops are an offshoot of stories that Fox Prescott wrote two decades ago about the Matriarchs and other women in the Torah. In recent years Miriam’s Well has produced Fox Prescott’s play, “In the Voices of Our Mothers” at universities and prisons, synagogue and churches.
In the workshops, Fox Prescott leads acting exercises, Rosen introduces “projective dreamwork,” a therapeutic process she teaches, and Rabbi Ahuvia reviews the contents of the new Haggadah to ensure its consistency with traditional Jewish interpretations of the Passover story.
In a few years, after more workshops and interactive seders, the Haggadah will be published, Rosen said.
“There is always danger that the written word will become solidified,” said Fox Prescott, “but then it will be time for someone else to bring forth a new voice.”
Ardman and Ben-Dor will attend the April 4 communal seder where the Haggadah will be presented.
O’Clair will be hosting her own, previously scheduled seder that night.
“We’re writing our own family Haggadah,” she said. “We will dance with tambourines,” as biblical Miriam and other women did after the splitting of the Red Sea. “We’ll be talking about Miriam and the women” who were the focus of the workshops. “We’re going to talk about the things that come from the workshops.”