In Richardson, Texas, they call it “Miriam’s seder.” “Hers Seder” is the term of art in Pennsylvania, at the American Jewish Congress gatherings. And in a diverse cross-section of neighborhoods, towns and cities, from the semi-suburbia of Hollis Hills, Queens, to the flatlands of Canton, Ohio, to the East Bay of San Francisco, to the deep South of Birmingham, Ala., the event is known simply as a women’s seder.
Even 25 years after the first feminist Haggadah was composed by two friends — and a full generation since the first feminist seder was held the following year in an Upper West Side apartment — controversy still rages widely over what to call them. The term feminist is loaded, in the minds of many, with negative associations, though despite the debate most seders share similar content.
“If we said feminist, I don’t know how that would be received by members. We are in the South, you know,” said Elizabeth Stein, the Jewish educator who organizes “Miriam’s seder” at Congregation Beth Torah, a Conservative synagogue in Richardson.
In many communities today, though, that is where the controversy ends. What a difference a quarter century makes. At first, feminist seders involved just a handful of elite women and attracted great opposition. E.M. Broner, a co-author of the first feminist Haggadah, recalls being booed off the stage when she broached the topic at synagogues and Jewish community centers.
Today they have become a grassroots phenomena, with several thousand women attending such gatherings this year. In most communities the seders are not perceived as radical. Just about everywhere, more women want to attend than organizers have seats.
And yet as the event takes root in a growing number of settings, conflict can surface in some of the more conservative venues. In Connecticut, for example, strife swirled this year over something more fundamental than the feminist title — the way in which the Creator was addressed.
The debates highlight the profound ambivalence that lingers in some quarters about Jewish feminism even a full generation after some of its innovations were introduced.
In Stamford, Conn., this year it was to be a Ma’yan type of seder, using the Haggadah published by the Manhattan feminist group while Debbie Friedman led the 750 participants at the Marriott Hotel in prayer and song. That Haggadah includes blessings in their traditional form, which begin “Baruch Atah …” but also in their feminized form, starting “Brucha At Ya Eloheinu Ruach ha-Olam.”
The rabbi at a local Orthodox synagogue, Mark Dratch, was shown the Haggadah and called the feminine God-language “heresy.”
“The format of ‘Baruch Atah’ is based on a biblical verse in Psalms,” said Rabbi Dratch, who is known as a supporter of Orthodox feminism and leads Congregation Agudath Sholom. “To change a verse like that challenges the authenticity of the Torah text,” he said in an interview.
The imbroglio points to the difficulty of holding such events under the broad tent of Jewish federations, which in this case, as in many others, convened the seder.
Because the Jewish federations in Stamford, Westport, Greenwich and other Connecticut towns were the official sponsors, organizers felt they had to accommodate Rabbi Dratch’s view.
They initially proposed blacking out offending passages, which even the Haggadah’s authors said they found a provocative and potentially satisfactory solution, since it might have sparked women to wonder what had been censored. Then organizers realized it would be impractical to black out lines on so many pages.
In the end they cut out the blessings at issue and pasted the traditional, acceptable versions into a photocopied booklet. But on her way out the door, each participant also received a copy of the real Ma’yan Haggadah — with the blessings in both traditional masculine, and newer feminine, language.
“We had mixed feelings [about the issue] because the whole idea of the women’s seder is to allow women who felt restricted through the years to be as free as possible while they celebrate the festival of freedom,” said seder co-chair Shari Levy.
Rabbi Dratch’s “comments weren’t accepted wholeheartedly, but we did want to include as many women as possible, and were willing to compromise.”
In general, though, feminist seders have become so common that Connecticut’s level of controversy is rare.
But in the beginning, it was the rule rather than the exception.
“A psychiatrist at a JCC said ‘you’re destabilizing the family’ ” with the feminist seder, recalled Broner, who composed the first feminist Haggadah with her friend Naomi Nimrod when the two were living in Haifa.
“At the same time, these Hadassah women wanted to hold mother-daughter seders, even in the late 1970s,” said Broner, author of “The Telling,” the story of the original feminist seder. “And I began getting letters from every college, from places in Ohio and Georgia, asking if they could use part of my Haggadah and combine it with their own. It started with college students, with young women, and when they invited their mothers, an amazing thing happened.”
Much has changed since the seder sisters — Broner, writers Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Phyllis Chesler, and filmmaker Lilly Rivlin — and their friends gathered for the first feminist seder a quarter century ago in Chesler’s Upper West Side apartment.
No publisher at the time would touch the feminist Haggadah, recalled Broner. Only Ms. magazine would publish excerpts.
Today some of the changes those women made are being incorporated into mainstream Haggadahs, such as the one recently published by the Reconstructionist movement, as well as the ever-growing number of pointedly feminist guides to the seder.
Then, the idea was foreign to all but a handful of Jews. Now, even at an Orthodox gathering — the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference in February — a feminist seder table was on display with new ritual objects and commentary on the themes put up in posters around it, explicating distinctly feminist viewpoints about significant motifs of the holiday like blood and water.
Today many of the innovations introduced at the original feminist seder and its successors are widely employed at women’s — and increasingly, at regular — seder tables.
Changing the gender of those who ask the Four Questions from sons to children is no longer unusual, although changing it to daughters is usually done only at the feminist seders. Many now place an orange on the seder plate, referring to the addition of women’s voices to the Exodus story as something new, but not prohibited, as a piece of bread would be.
Miriam’s cups are also becoming increasingly popular. A female with a significant role in the Torah story of the Exodus, Miriam — Moses’ sister and a prophetess — has become a popular character for feminist explication and midrashic interpretation.
And since classical Jewish sources talk of the miracle of Miriam’s well following her wherever the Israelites traveled in the desert, feminists have reclaimed the image by putting a goblet filled with water next to Elijah’s cup on the seder table.
It has also led to a midrashic exploration of the pivotal roles played by other women in the Passover story: women such as Shifra and Puah, the midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh’s order to kill all newborn Jewish boys, and who some classical sources say were Yocheved and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister; and even of Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, who discovered the baby Moses floating in the basket his mother had woven and adopted him as her own son.
Today some feminist seders involve hundreds of other women in a hotel ballroom or catering hall. Others attract dozens to Jewish community centers or synagogue social halls. Sometimes they are as simple as a group of friends gathered around a dining room table.
For many Jewish women, feminist seders serve as a doorway to the possibility of a new kind of Judaism — one in which they can see a place for themselves as the central actors in their own religious journeys.
“It allows a woman who usually has one ear on the doorbell and another ear on the kitchen to sit down and absorb, and not worry whether Uncle George will spill the wine on the tablecloth, and to participate and really experience the seder,” said Adele Gelb, communications director for the Canton, Ohio, Jewish Community Federation.
At Canton’s third women’s seder on April 2, about 150 women attended — a remarkable turnout for a town with a total Jewish population of 1,500.
The seders have become a major annual event in the spiritual lives of many Jewish women, even those who never walk through synagogue doors.
Amy Gladstone describes herself as a secular Jew, is intermarried and attends the “feminist/human — liberation seder” hosted each year by a friend in Brooklyn. It is one of the few organized Jewish rituals in which she participates.
“For me it’s a way to be with people who think in a like-minded way, and it gives me a sense of community,” said the psychotherapist and mother of two young sons.
And like no other event in Jewish life, feminist seders bring together women from across a broad social spectrum.
At the Ma’yan seder in Manhattan, now in its seventh year, Park Avenue ladies who lunch dance arm-in-arm with young women who are pierced in unusual places. Straight women share the experience with lesbians, and the Modern Orthodox sing along with women who are avowedly secular.
This year the Ma’yan seder added a fourth night to accommodate the more than 2,000 people clamoring to attend, but still had a long waiting list. Young women — and an occasional young man — bring their mothers and grandmothers. New parents wear their infants in Snugglies and everyone grabs a tambourine and dances around the room while singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman leads them in spirit-filled song.
“I see that people are so hungry to celebrate and to dance, and to embrace their Jewish lives, and they’re looking for this to happen through the seders,” Friedman said in an interview.
Pogrebin recalls a similar experience at the very first feminist seder, when about a dozen Jewish friends and writer-acquaintances gathered in Chesler’s living room.
“I felt that I had come home,” said Pogrebin in an interview. She was then an editor at Ms. magazine and had been estranged from Judaism since the age of 15, when her mother died and she was not permitted to say Kaddish as part of a community of Jews.
The seder, she said, “was one of the things that made me feel this was my religion and no one could take it away from me.”
The originals have gone through changes, as has their seder. The seder sisters and their friends have argued ideologies and loyalties. Some have broken away from the group. The core participants agree that the seder is no longer what it once was.
But still, this year, they will gather in one of their living room floors, only women, talk about the narrow places through which they have moved in the last year, and continue this tradition that they have created for the Jewish people.