What's in an Orange?
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
How to cite this page
Namerow, Jordan. "What's in an Orange?." 30 March 2007. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 7, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/whats-in-an-orange>.
"The Background to the Background of the Orange on the Seder Plate and a Ritual of Inclusion" by Deborah Eisehnbach-Budner and Alex Borns-Weil (which is featured on the Ritualwell website -- www.ritualwell.org) provides the connection of how the Univ. of California Hillel story made it into the Oberlin feminist haggadah. The women who created the 1984 haggadah used a short story written by Susan Fielding (now Shifra Lilith Freewoman) that was inspired by a news clipping which seems to have been about the encounter between the hasidic rebbitzin and the Berkeley students (Eisenbach-Budner and Borns-Weil say the clipping was about a hasidic rebbe). It was in their haggadah that Susannah Heschel encountered the story about bread on the seder plate, which she more widely publicized as an orange on the seder plate... The story of the Oberlin students' haggadah also encompasses their own struggle over whether or not their desire to challenge tradition in favor of inclusiveness should involve actually putting bread on their seder plate.
If anyone knows more about this story... particularly about how a ritual meant to demonstrate the importance of acknowledging the legitmate place of lesbians in Judaism became transformed into a story about inclusion of women rabbis, please add your own comments. By next Passover we hope we'll be able to offer the definitive narrative of this classic example of ritual change in our own time... a.k.a. "the orange on the seder plate"!
I, Shifra Freewoman, (susan fielding was my name at the time) , wrote a story in 1983 or 84 called a crust of bread at the seder table, during winter term at oberlin college.
I based it on a news clipping from new women's times, a new york feminist news paper. I found the clipping somewhere between 1980-82.
The basic story in the paper was that a group of jewish feminsts asked a rabbi, what was the place of lesbians in Judiasm. A rabbi responded that there is as much space for a lesbian in judaism as there is for chometz-bread at the seder table.
The women responded by placing a crust of bread on the seder plate to symbolize their desire to include lesbians.
Whether the clipping was accurate or not, I don't know, but i loved it and decided to make it into a story,
I kept the basic facts, but embelished it to make it into a good story. I turned the Rabbi into the Fabrente Rebbe, because he was a hothead fiery, and I develpend a character called the feminister Rebba, a feminist, woman rabbi.
A group of us at Oberlin, jewish feminists, who were putting together a womens haggadah, liked my story and decided to include it.
There was a discussion, which I missed, about whether to do as the women in the story did, ie putting a crust of bread on the seder table.
Some of the women favored putting a crust on the seder table-i know at the time, I would have advocated that. Others were not comfortable with associating lesbians with chometz. Finally a lovely solution was found, we'd keep the story, but instead of using bread, we would leave an open space-Makom in Hebrew- on the seder plate for all including lesbians, who were excluded due to fear and ignorance. Makom is also a word for God, It means place, god is the place of the world.
Our haggadah, included this info and a blessing for including all who were left out.
One of the participants wrote a piece, about the process, of how we came to a decision, kind of a ritual story.
So we as a group never did put a crust of bread on the seder table.
A number of years ago Rebbecca Alpert called me, for permisssion to use the title for the story I wrote for her book.
She did some further research about the story. Apparently the "true story" was that the women asked a chabad rebbitzen about the place of lesbians in Judiasm, and she said, oh, its not a big deal its like chometz, at the seder table.
Now, I thought, how could a rebbizen say that- even a tiny amount of chometz is totally unacceptable. It seems like a very big deal.
But, a male friend suggested that maybe she had a differerent view of the matter, maybe she didn't make as big of a deal of the restriction on chometz as a male rabbi would. And perhapss for her lesbianism was not a big deal.
Also in my view, Jewish traditon sometimes tends to trivilize matters relating to women, and lesbeanism is not mentioned in the Torah.
In truth, lesbianism is transgressive of male domination, and it may be trivialized as a way to make it less threatening. Also chabbadnicks tend to prosletize and are sometimes willing to be somewhat welcoming so as not to totally drive outsider jews away.
Of course this is all speculation, the last part, And we probably we will never know the true story, Other women have already writtin about the further transmutation of the story to an orange on the seder table, etc. as started by Sussanah Heschel It's fasinating to me how an oral tradition changes over time and thats only over the last 35 years. Imagine the evolution of customs over 4000 years , oye vey.
Maybe at some point I'll get ti together to print the story on this blog,
In a brief article dated 2001, Susannah Heschel describes the origin of the orange (apparently not ever a tangerine) on the Seder plate. There is no Chabad rebbetzin in her story, and the symbolism includes lesbian women and gay men.
It's posted to the Miriam's Cup website, and can be found at this link:
H.ag kasheir v'samei'ah.!
Conscious of the origins, this is how my co-editor, Jeffrey Kaye, covered the matter in the Sholem Family Hagada For a Secular Celebration of Peysakh:
"There is also an orange on our seyder plate. It was added to the tradition in recent years. It symbolizes all the people and groups not fully recognized in much of the Jewish community. Among them are women, gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals and transgendered people. For us, the orange on the seyder plate also represents the fruitful contributions of Secular Jews who understand peysakh historically and culturally, as well as traditionally, and all the intercultural families whom we welcome and celebrate."
I think that placing bread on a seder plate is only emphasizing the belief that lesbians do not have a place in Judaism. Most observant Jews probably have a problem with bread on a seder plate, even if it were only there as a symbol, and would therefore avoid this act of solidarity because it means violating kashrut. Furthermore, I donÌ¢âÂã¢t think anyone should have to violate kashrut on Pesach to show their solidarity with LGBT Jews. There are certainly other more visible and effective ways to do so. After all, can we really compare a crust of bread to a living, breathing person who can play an active role in the Jewish community? I donÌ¢âÂã¢t think so.
The shift from tangerine to orange and from lesbian inclusion to womenÌ¢âÂã¢s inclusion is certainly problematic since most people are not familiar with the original story. But to put a positive spin on the shift, the orange can be thought of as a symbol of all women regardless of their sexual orientation, meaning that this symbol includes lesbians. It is an all-encompassing symbol of womenÌ¢âÂã¢s inclusion, which I think more people can relate to. However, I agree that this does not solve the problem of discomfort that the Jewish community has with gays and lesbians, especially because the seder plate is only on display in Jewish homes for a few days each year. Perhaps itÌ¢âÂã¢s time to tackle the problem of discomfort in our community in a more powerful and permanent way than by placing bread or citrus fruit on the seder plate.
I'm skeptical of the first part of the story. Any chabad rebbitzen (or child, or layperson) would NEVER say that eating bread is a MINOR issue on passover. On the contrary, it's considered a much more severe issue than regular kashrut. This isn't just esoteric book knowledge, either.
So I suspect we haven't gotten to the bottom of this story yet.