The first Passover Seder I remember was conducted in Hebrew and Yiddish by members of my grandparents’ generation. My dad had transliterated the four questions for me to read. I understood nothing.
All my subsequent memories are much happier, centering around family and friends, food and wine, and the timeless story of liberation we are commanded to tell our children. I have been to Seders in Brazil and Russia, each of which felt familiar, because the word Seder means order, and all Seders have a proscribed order. But there were also differences, and, recently, differences have created tumult in my own family.
A few years ago, without too much reaction, we added a Miriam’s cup to our Seder. Traditionally, we fill a cup with wine and open the front door to welcome in the prophet Elijah. Miriam’s cup is filled with water. It was Miriam who, when Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses floating on the Nile in a basket of reeds, offered to get his own mother as a wet nurse. It was Miriam’s well that was the the source of water that sustained the Jews as they wandered in the desert.
Two years ago, one of my brothers wrote “The Viniar Family Haggadah” to the applause of some and the consternation of others. (The Haggadah is the book, or guide, to the Seder.) Adding an orange to the Seder plate, which is traditionally made up of symbols of the season and story of the Jews’ escape from bondage in Egypt, has been the most objectionable change. I had thought that the orange originated when Professor Susannah Heschel was told that “a woman belongs on the bima (leading a congregation) like an orange belongs on the Seder plate.” Since then Professor Heschel has clarified that the orange came about to express solidarity with LGBTQ and all other Jews who have been marginalized.
One of my younger cousins has been vociferous in his objections to this change, this violation of “tradition.” How-to explain to him that for years I felt that the traditions he believes in so strongly excluded me as a woman? There are probably still copies in someone’s basement of the Maxwell House Haggadah we used for many years where, on the pages that explained how to tell the story of Passover to the four sons, the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son and the son who does not know how to ask, I crossed out sons and wrote children. I had two young daughters by then and wanted them to feel like an integral part, not a spectator at this beloved ritual. I did not want them to feel as alienated as I had been from my own religion.
With so much change swirling around us, traditions provide comfort and stability. But the next generation will not know that the orange was a radical change. It will just be a tradition. And just maybe they will make changes of their own. This year, my brother left off the orange and added an olive, the fruit of the tree which symbolizes peace, and invited everyone to bring their own addition next year. I hope they will take him up on it.