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Queering the Seder Plate - The Mistold Story of the Passover Orange

Queering the Seder Plate - The Mistold Story of the Passover Orange

Queering the Seder Plate - The Mistold Story of the Passover Orange

With discrimination in Indiana, it feels right to queer the plate.

My parents live in Florida. Each spring their backyard fills with oranges. Valencias, Temples, Ambersweets: oranges fall from the trees and onto the clipped lawn. As children, my sister and I would roam the sidewalks with wheelbarrows full of oranges, peddling the fruit to the neighbors.
As far back as I can remember our Passover Seder plate has featured an orange in addition to the usual foods required by the Haggadah—bitter herbs, charoset, parsley and saltwater, shank bone, hard-boiled egg. We place the orange in the center of the Seder plate, a neon addition to the usual taupes and mauves. 
Each year, come Passover, there were always two explanations provided for the orange at the center of the Seder plate. The Floridian explanation, and the feminist explanation.
Mid-Seder, my mother would rise from the table.
“A man once said,” she would say, “that ‘a woman belongs on the bimah (the podium or platform in a synagogue)as an orange belongs on a Seder plate’. We include the orange on the Seder plate to show that, indeed, a woman belongs on the bimah.”
My family would hmmmm in approval, maybe applaud. “Of course!” my cousins and grandparents and I would say. Women should be included as active participants in Judaism.
This is a story often told at Passover Seders. Not just in South Florida, where backyards are glutted with the fruit, where the air carries the constant scent of citrus. There are oranges placed in the centers of Seder plates around the world. And the reasoning provided for them is similar: A misogynist guy once said that women don’t belong on the bimah.We responded by celebrating the orange, by placing it in the center the Seder plate.
This year, I attended a Seder at a friend’s house. In Indiana, the state in which I attend graduate school, and the state in which Governor Mike Pence has recently signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, allowing private businesses to publicly discriminate against LGBTQ folks.
Guests of the Seder were asked to bring stories, articles, or questions relating to the theme of freedom. We would read them out loud and discuss the ways in which they resonated with the story of Exodus.
My friend brought an article describing the actual origin of the orange on the Seder plate.
In the 1980s, a Jewish feminist scholar, Dr. Susannah Heschel, visited the Hillel at Oberlin College. A group of Oberlin students had composed a new, feminist Haggadah (the text that sets forth the order of the Passover Seder). In the feminist Haggadah, a story is told in which a woman asks a rabbi, “What room is there for a lesbian in Judaism?”
The rabbi responds, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate.”
The Seder plates at Oberlin’s Hillel featured crusts of bread, nestled between the parsley and the shank bone.
Though thrilled at the idea, Heschel bristled at the bread on the Oberlin Seder plate. Bread is explicitly forbidden during Passover. By placing the bread on the Seder plate wouldn’t we be embracing the idea that to be lesbian is to be hametz (leavened bread), to be a violation of law and tradition? she thought.
Heschel decided that it was high time for an official LGBTQ symbol of inclusion on the Seder plate. At her next Seder, she introduced the orange.
"I chose an orange,” writes Heschel in The Women’s Passover Companion, “because it suggests the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.”
My friend gave me the orange to take home. It’s sitting on top of the refrigerator in my kitchen. I’m looking at it and thinking about Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In Indiana, and in my Catholic county, identifying as queer often feels like an act of civil disobedience. RFRA cements this feeling and paints it orange.
My family told the story every year, the story about the woman and the orange. This Passover, I am reminded of the different forms feminism can take. This Passover, I think I need the orange to be a queer orange. I think I need the Seder plate to be queered. Otherwise, I’m left wandering a state that places me on the outside.
30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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Sarah Roth