What's in an Orange?

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As I prepare for Passover, I’ve been struck by the wide range of explanations given for why some Jews include an orange on a Seder plate. The variety of narratives reflect how this practice, which has become popular in the last 15 years or so, really evolved in a classic folk process yielding multiple tales and interpretations. While the origin for the orange as a Passover symbol is complicated, it’s interesting to follow the way in which the true origin of the custom has actually been subverted and erased.

In Like Bread on a Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition, Rebecca Alpert tells of a 1979 session on women and Jewish law presented to the Jewish Women’s Group at the University of California Berkeley Hillel by the rebbetzin of campus Chabad House (a sect of Orthodoxy), One student asked the rebbetzin for her opinion about the place of lesbians in Judaism. The rebbetzin suggested that lesbianism was a small transgression, like eating bread during Passover. Something one shouldn’t do, but for which there were few consequences. Some time later, when the Berkeley students were planning their Seder, the rebbetzin’s comment surfaced. In the experience of these students, however, lesbianism was much more problematic and transgressive in Jewish life than her comment had suggested. So that year at Passover, they chose to place a crust of bread on their Seder plate in solidarity with lesbians who were trying to find a place in Jewish life.

Others picked up this story, but struggled with the transgressive symbolism of bread on a seder plate. Professor Susannah Heschel, a Jewish feminist and daughter of the revered Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, encountered a fable version of the story in a Jewish women’s haggadah created by students at Oberlin. Uncomfortable with bringing bread to her mother’s seder table, she substituted a tangerine as a symbol for gay/lesbian solidarity. She then went on to share the story in many of her public speaking engagements.

But as the story spread, it changed. The symbol became an orange, not a tangerine, and the focus on Jewish lesbians shifted to a focus on the place of women leaders and rabbis in Judaism. The crucial phrase in the story was put into the mouth of a man saying, “there’s as much place for a woman on the bimah (synagogue pulpit) as there is for a orange on the seder plate.” As the 1996 Ma’yan haggadah concludes “Ever since that day, some Jews have placed an orange on their seder plates to assert symbolically that women and women's wisdom belong at the center of Jewish life and practice.” And this is the version that first began to appear in mainstream haggadahs.

We’ll never know exactly where it was that the oral transmission of the story substituted concern about lesbians for the transformative but less transgressive presence of women rabbis. But clearly, most people felt more comfortable with oranges and women rabbis, than with bread and lesbians at Passover. As the true origin of the story has resurfaced in recent years, some haggadahs have begun to acknowledge that gay/lesbian inclusion is also a part of the orange’s symbolism; many others do not.

While changing and adapting rituals to suit different contexts and to resonate with different populations is, indeed, part of the progressive Jewish tradition, what are we to make of this shift from the orange being a symbol of lesbian inclusion and LGBT solidarity to a symbol of women’s inclusion? By subverting the original meaning given to the orange, aren’t we only reinforcing the invisibility or discomfort our community still has with gays and lesbians in Jewish life?
co-authored by KG and JN

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