It is just minutes before the 2 p.m. start time of the Ma’yan feminist seder, and an electric current buzzes through the still-long entry line to the Museum of Jewish Heritage. After an eight-year hiatus, Ma’yan, a group that teaches feminist leadership skills and advocates social justice for women and all people, is once again hosting a pre-Passover gathering, this time marking the event’s 20th anniversary.
A woman sacrifices her place in line to hug a long-lost friend. A man with a British accent jokes that he is only there to support his mate whose new wife insists that he come. Standing just behind him, Rabbi David Ellenson, president of HUC, smiles broadly but offers no explanation for his presence among the woman-dominant crowd.
Upstairs, the reception room overlooking a sparkling New York Harbor is filled to capacity. The contagious excitement is fueled by pride in important shared achievements, even if the joy of reunion is tempered by the loss of companions and trailblazers along the way.
The singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman, who died in January 2011, brought her special musical impetus for the feminist seder with her from Los Angeles in the early ’90s and, as Eve Landau, director of Ma’yan, explains, “Debbie’s musical leadership took us to a whole new level.”
This year, Tamara and Ayelet Cohen lead the festivities along with Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC in Manhattan, with musical direction by Cantor Angela Buchdahl. Hundreds of fervent voices, belonging to veterans and newcomers, sing Friedman’s songs — anthems of the Jewish feminist movement. The songs are embellished by the rustling of tambourines distributed at all the tables. The timbrels, along with Miriam’s Cup, are iconic ritual objects introduced to the ceremonial table by feminist rabbis, artists and educators.
Ma’yan was not the first group to run feminist seders on the east coast. By 1992, feminist seders were flourishing in both private and public spaces all over the country. Antecedents to the Ma’yan initiative include the private gatherings organized by Esther Broner with the active participation of Phyllis Chesler, as documented in Lily Rivlin’s recent film, “A Weave of Women.”
Gail Reimer, founder and executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, offered perspective, telling The Jewish Week, “Being first is not highlighted in our histories. When something important is in the air, it keeps manifesting in different places. The feminist seders, were and still are, an outgrowth of the momentum of Jewish feminism.”
Reimer added that she could consider her own mother a pioneer of the women’s seder: For years hungry women secretly shared something symbolizing a holiday gathering. “There were no men at that seder because they were in the women’s barracks of Auschwitz.”
But Ma’yan, which is housed at the JCC in Manhattan, famously opened up the women’s seder to the whole community. For 12 consecutive years, they sponsored overflow events four nights in a row, accommodating 500 women each night — and organizers still struggled with a waiting list. They stopped producing the events when they became “more of a social scene or a happening,” said organizer Paulette Lipton, “since the main idea was to provide a model for wide dissemination.”
The Ma’yan phenomenon sparked people to rethink Passover as a struggle for equality and human rights, beginning, but not limited to, gender issues. Miriam’s Cup as a new ritual object had a huge impact as a result of the successful 1998 exhibit at Hebrew Union College with cups designed by 80 international artists. The Ma’yan Haggadah, called “The Journey Continues,” edited by Tamara Cohen with input from many others as new editions were published, has sold more than 50,000 copies worldwide. Some founders, like Barbara Dobkin, whose family foundation is a major supporter of Ma’yan, wonder whether or not the feminist approach has infiltrated homes or if the women’s gatherings have remained a separate social phenomena.
The vantage point of the younger women in attendance is an eloquent testimony to progress and propagation. Talia Cooper, 28, said, “At home, we just called them seders and they were always feminist.”
The seder organizers have made a point of including women whose communities were once on the margins of progressive feminist circles. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader of Beit Simchat Torah, spoke of the LGBT community’s long journey out of the margins, and of the active role Debbie Friedman played in that effort.
For some, the experience of the seder is deeply personal. Long-time participant Merril Feinstein said, “Every time I come, I dig deeply into a spiritual quest. I ask myself: ‘What are the current Ten Plagues in my own life? How can I expand out of my own narrow place and prioritize for the future?’”
Blu Greenberg, a founding leader of the Orthodox feminist movement, reflected on the seder and her own journey. “At the earliest feminist seders, there was more implied criticism of men as oppressors and of the tradition as misogynist than was comfortable for me. Secondly, seeing the expropriation of hallowed symbols and rituals for another purpose made me feel as if these ceremonies were going against halacha. I affirmed these seders, but with very mixed feelings.”
But Greenberg was back this year offering her blessing. “Over the years, feminist seders have focused less on an exclusionary tradition than on the modern liberation story and accomplishments of women of the last 40 years,” she said. “And who should not want to celebrate that?”
The anniversary seder, as is traditional, was enhanced by a multigenerational presence: The women at each table introduced themselves with their own Hebrew names, as well as their mothers’ and, if possible, their grandmothers’. Hilda Greenberg was there for the first time in the company of her daughter, granddaughter and now great-granddaughter. Dobkin beamed, “It is so wonderful to have little girls there who were not even born when we had our last seder.”
The challenge of this year’s seder, according to organizers, was marking all the progress made while being honest about how much work is left to be done. The first cup of wine was dedicated by Ruth Messenger of the American Jewish World Service to “the millions of girls and women everywhere who are still subject to violence and hatred,” with a call for an active rededication to fighting for women’s rights, particularly in the developing world. A commentary on the drowning of the Egyptians prays that “our freedom will not leave anyone else orphaned.”
The spirit of social justice was emphasized in the Ma’yan Haggadah with each cup of wine dedicated to another cause and its leader. This emphasis “on all the work still to be done” is widespread in feminist circles. Rabbi Sue Levy Elwell, one of the founding mothers of the feminist seder and currently a spiritual director and rabbinic coach, has written a supplement to the Haggadah that cries out against mass incarceration as a current social ill here at home. “As people of privilege, talking about freedom, we may not sit idly by.”
Continuing the custom of bringing in new symbols, Rabbi Elwell encourages the introduction of a lock and key to the table as a reminder of all those who are not free. (The Haggadah supplement is available at Jewishcurrents.org.)
Blu Greenberg, who after the past 30 years has come to believe that there are no halachic violations, is expansive in her praise. “We should all appreciate the feminist seders because they do remind us that while we’ve made gains, there are plenty of others out there who are still oppressed. Feminist seders celebrate a modern liberation movement and also remind us of our responsibilities to each other and to the world.” She added, “That is a very legitimate message of our tradition. In other words, as far as feminist seders are concerned, I think I’ve grown up.”
Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of “Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.” Susanreimertorn.tumblr.com.