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Donning The ‘Sacred Shmata’

Donning The ‘Sacred Shmata’

For the 31st year in a row several of the original "Seder Sisters" sat together on Sunday night, speaking of the world’s present plagues and of the ways in which women worldwide are still in various types of bondage imposed on them because of their gender.

And they tried, these pioneers who are now in their 60s and 70s, who created the very first feminist seder ever, to bring younger women to the table and inspire them to make this ritual their own. But while community-wide feminist and women’s seders appear to have become a permanent part of the Jewish ritual landscape, often run by Jewish federations and synagogues, more intimate personal feminist seders seem not to have taken widespread root.

"I always marvel that so many people want to be invited to ours and so few create their own. It should be proliferating exponentially but it doesn’t seem to," said Letty Cottin Pogrebin, in an interview after Sunday’s gathering. She, along with writer Esther Broner and filmmaker Lilly Rivlin, are the originators still celebrating the feminist seder each year.

"I feel more as if I should be challenging young people, ‘Why aren’t you doing your own?’ " said Cottin Pogrebin, a writer and a co-founder, with feminist seder participant Gloria Steinem, of Ms. magazine. "I bemoan the fact that more young people don’t feel the need to originate their own seder, but at the same time I understand the stresses on them."

This year the seder was held, as it has been for the past several, at the Central Park West apartment of psychoanalyst Barbara Kane. She transformed her living room into a Middle Eastern tent-salon, with yards of sparkling diaphanous material swathed overhead and low tables covered with colorful cloths, bottles of wine and seltzer, and plates of Passover food in front of about 30 participants.

Along with a concentration of women in their 50s and older, they included Broner’s daughter and teenage granddaughter, an about-to-be-ordained Conservative rabbi in her 20s, as well as a 20-something lesbian peace activist from Tel Aviv and a woman in her 30s who nursed her 6-week-old baby through the seder.

Conversation was focused on political activism, on the challenges and triumphs of women from Africa to Central America to the United States.

The evening’s dramatic peak came when Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, spiritual leader of the independent Brooklyn congregation Kolot Chayeinu and her partner, Kathryn Conroy, put a ceramic seder plate in a pillowcase and suddenly smashed it into shards with a hammer. Holding aloft the fragmented plate, Lippmann asked the other seder makers to reflect on ways in which the world is broken, and what they can do to repair it.

Each year, the feminist seder is a bit different, say the organizers, but it is always a centerpiece of their Passover observance.

Rivlin said she helped start it "to bring women into the tradition."

"When we started this we had a choice whether to be outside of Judaism. I wanted to find a place for myself in Judaism, and not be separated from it," she said. "We’ve come a long way. As we got involved in recreating our place in Judaism, many of the women started studying."

"I don’t worry about it being carried on because I really feel that it’s a phenomenon of ours and others should create their own phenomenon," said Cottin Pogrebin.

"Will it continue indefinitely? Who knows," said Rivlin. "I feel really proud of having such an effect on American Judaism. Seeing the young women there I kept thinking about that. Where are they going to take it? How will they evolve it?

"Why do we still need it? Because we still need our space to talk about our issues, because women still have not found an equal position in Judaism, though we’ve come such a long way," she said. This year’s feminist seder ended the way it always does: with participants wrapping themselves in "the Sacred Schmata."

Begun in 1983 as a way to add a new, woman’s ritual to their feminist seder, the Sacred Schmata reclaims and subverts the Yiddish word for "rag" (as in "what’s that schmata you’re wearing?" and as in the cloths women once used to scrub floors by hand) elevating it into something that is at once a little silly, and holy.

As the seder’s creators, and Jewish feminism, have traveled far in the past 31 years, so has the Sacred Schmata. In 1984 Rivlin took it to Mount Sinai, on the first-ever joint Jewish-Muslim trek up the hallowed mountain. With a yearning as ancient and as permanent as that mountain, the women stood together. Enfolded together in the long, purply-pinkish cloth, they sang together "Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu," "Peace Will Come Unto Us Still."

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