Episode 73: An Orange Belongs on the Seder Plate Like...
[Theme music plays]
Nahanni: Hi, it’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history and Jewish culture meet.
Nahanni: So, I want to talk to you about what you remember about the orange on the seder plate.
Janice: Oh… (laughs).
The seder plate has a central role on Passover—the objects on it symbolize the themes of the holiday. For many, those are the traditional egg, greens, maror, and shank bone. Some people make substitutions or additions to reflect contemporary issues—an artichoke heart for interfaith families, an olive for Middle East peace, fair trade chocolate for economic liberation. But the orange was one of the first innovations on the seder plate. In this episode of Can We Talk?, we’re exploring what the orange symbolizes.
My aunt Janice and cousin Anya were the ones who first brought the orange to our family seders when I was a teenager. Let's hear what Janice remembers about it.
Janice: You know, it's all woven together, but just that, you know, “an orange belongs on a seder plate the way a woman belongs in the rabbinate.” That was the reason that we have to have an orange on the seder plate, is that women's voices are needed.
Nahanni: Do you remember where you first learned about it?
Janice: It's all a mush for me, whether I got it from Anya or I got it from other feminist sources… I have this memory of Anya telling me about the orange and us being a little uncomfortable about bringing it to the seder, because it was so traditional. Like, you know, maybe someone would be offended, right? So, you know, it was a little bit of a risk, like bringing a glass of water for Miriam was a risk, right? Because I didn't want to be, you know, the New Age goofy in-law.
Nahanni: I feel like I remember Grandma saying something like, “Well, I definitely believe that women should be rabbis, but I don't think an orange belongs on the seder plate!”
Janice: That's exactly what I'm talking about. Yeah. That is what I'm talking about. That there are certain things that you don't change, right? The seder plate is supposed to be this.
You know, what is the inheritance? Like, I remember specifically Susannah Heschel as connected to this. And to me, Susannah Heschel was a woman rooted in tradition, but who had enough confidence to say, wait, not everything is represented on this plate.
Nahanni: Susannah Heschel was, in fact, the person who introduced the idea of adding an orange to the seder plate. She joins us to explain her original intention.
Nahanni: How did so many oranges appear on so many people's seder plates?
Susannah: Ah, well, uh, I ask myself that too, sometimes. It became so popular. But I can tell you how it started.
Nahanni: It started in the mid-1980s, when HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was spreading rapidly. Susannah, a feminist scholar and writer, had just published her first book on Jewish feminism. She was on a speaking tour, giving a talk at Oberlin College, when she met a group of students who had written their own Lesbian Hagaddah.
Susannah: One of the things in the Haggadah was there was a story that they had invented about a Hasidic rebbe, a woman, a feminister rebbe, who sat at her Passover table, surrounded by her disciples. And one of them said, “Rebbe, why is there a crust of bread on the Seder plate?”
And the Rebbe closed her eyes and sighed and said, “It's because many years ago, there was a family of women getting ready for Passover. The mothers and the daughters and cousins and grandmothers, who were all cooking and cleaning and singing and dancing and getting ready. And then the youngest of them, who was 15, said, “I have a question and I'm going to go ask the rabbi.” So she goes to the rabbi of the town, who's very Orthodox—he was known as the “farbrenter rabbi,” he was so strictly Orthodox. And she goes and says, “Rabbi, I have a question.” And the rabbi is delighted, because usually a question on the eve of Passover means something like, “I dropped a crumb of bread in the chicken soup pot. What should I do?” And then he can tell her, “You have to throw everything away… the soup, the pot, the whole kitchen!” And so he's excited. And he says, “Yes, my daughter, ask.” And she says, “Rabbi, what room is there for a lesbian in Judaism?” And he leaps up, the rabbi, and grabs her by the shoulders and starts shaking her, red in the face. And he says, “There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate.
“And so,” the Feminister Rebbe said, “that is why we have a crust of bread on the seder plate. Because of what this rabbi said.”
Nahanni: In case that went by too fast, it’s a story within a story within a story. The Oberlin students had created a character called the Feminister Rebbe. She tells her disciples about another narrow-minded rabbi who says that lesbians are like bread on a seder plate—in other words, treyf, not kosher. And so, the story goes, the fictional Feminister Rebbe and her disciples put a crust of bread on their seder plate.
Nahanni: And were the students at Oberlin putting bread on their seder plate?
Susannah: No, not as far as I know.
Nahanni: They were just telling this story.
Susannah: They're telling this story, and it's a marvelous story. And the thing is, I understood why they formulated that story. This probably would have been 1984 or 1985, and it made sense to me, because on the one hand a crust of bread on the seder plate is transgressive—in a sense, it destroys Passover. Passover's about no bread.
Now as an expression of anger, let's say, I understand that. But on the other hand, I don't think being a lesbian is transgressive. So a crust of bread, uh, was not the right way for me, But I did decide, starting that spring, to put an orange on the seder plate, out of solidarity with gay men and lesbians, in this moment of what was coming to be called AIDS.
This horrible time, when there was widespread discrimination against gay men and lesbians and this just made it worse with all these Evangelical ministers calling it God’s punishment.
Nahanni: Jewish leaders, on the whole, were silent in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
The newspapers were calling it “the gay plague.” Gay people were shunned, whether or not they were ill. The amount of contempt and rage directed against, especially, gay men was just overwhelming.
Nahanni: Hmhm. So you put an orange on your seder plate, and how did that become a tradition?
Susannah: So I took an orange, which is actually a mandarin orange.
Nahanni: And how did you pick an orange?
Susannah: Well, I'll tell you. First of all, apples are taken, right? But I picked an orange for the following reasons. First of all, I passed it around the table. Everybody took a segment of orange. They said the blessing over fruit, and they were to eat the segment of orange, out of solidarity with gay men and lesbians, and then spit out the seeds of homophobia.
So I pointed out that you never peel an orange and find that one segment is missing. It's never happened. And that's what it means to be a community. You don't take somebody out with because they're gay or lesbian or whatever, and everybody sticks together like the segments stick together. And if gay men are getting attacked by a horrible disease, we stick together.
Nahanni: So how did the word spread about this new tradition that you had created?
Susannah: So when I was giving lectures about feminist issues, I mentioned this as one of several new feminist traditions, like Rosh Hodesh for example, different things that had sprung up. And then after a while I started hearing from people the following story: That I had been giving a lecture about feminist issues in Miami Beach, and a man stood up in the Q-and-A period and chastised me and said, “A woman belongs on the bimah like an orange on the seder plate!”
Now this has never happened, but people were coming to me and saying, “I'm putting an orange on the seder plate because of what that man said to you in Miami Beach.”
Nahanni: So, uh, it's just simply a rumor that got started somehow. You never found out the source of it?
Susannah: I never found out the source of it and it's a rumor that's spread. And the problem is that it's spread far and wide and people really liked it. And that bothers me.
Nahanni: Why does that bother you?
Susannah: It didn't happen, first of all. And then it's taking my idea and putting into his mouth, you see—the orange. And it's erasing the homophobia altogether. And it's saying what women shouldn't be on the bimah? Well, women were on the bimah already.
Nahanni: Why do you think people liked it so much?
Susannah: Well, of course, what it shows us is the homophobia that was so rampant that they liked a story where the homophobia was removed, was no longer the issue. In other words, putting an orange on the seder plate as some kind of symbol against homophobia and spitting out the seats to repudiate homophobia, that made them so uncomfortable that they had to turn the whole story around, which is just an indication of how important that orange still is.
Nahanni: So it was somehow more acceptable to talk about women's equality than to talk about homophobia at your family seder.
Nahanni: Well, thank you for helping to clear things up here.
Susannah: Have you heard about it from people as the Miami Beach story?
Susannah: Isn’t that incredible!
Nahanni: I don’t think I learned the original meaning until I started working with the Jewish Women’s Archive. Well, now I have to tell Janice, of course.
Janice: Wow (laughs). I had no idea…wow. I don't remember it being about gay and lesbians, I remember it being about women. Isn't that interesting?
Nahanni: From Susannah’s perspective, the fact that so many people adopted this as a symbol of women’s equality rather than solidarity with queer Jews is a sign of homophobia in the Jewish community.
Janice: I am completely blown away, Nahanni, I would've bet money this was about women. I'm blown away. And I don't know, it's not homophobia—it’s just how I remember it being taught to me. So I don't know what that means. Is that just a blind spot on my part? I mean, I'm completely blown away right now. Hmm.
Nahanni: What are you thinking?
Janice: Wow. So the only other thing I can think of is that that got laid into my awareness because I felt that was more acceptable to say, which fits into the homophobia thing. In other words, if I brought it to our table, it would be more acceptable to say “women's voices need to be heard” than “we need to include gays and lesbians.”
So does it not say anywhere that an orange is like women rabbis? Is there someplace that I read that or did I just make it up?
Nahanni: No, everybody made it up. It might've been repeated many times. That's what most people who do it think.
Janice: OK. So I'm not the only one who had a blind spot.
Nahanni: No. That's why we're doing this piece.
Janice: I mean, I think knowing this real story is amazing, and it's as much a part now of the story for me as the orange. Like now that I know this, I won't be able to keep that to myself.
TRAX: There’s one more person I want to hear from, and that’s my cousin Anya, Janice’s daughter. She learned the real story of the orange as an adult and agrees that it’s definitely not what was talked about at our seders growing up.
Nahanni: So do you remember any talk about LGBTQ inclusion at our family seders back in the ‘90s or whenever this was?
Anya: No, definitely not. I don't think that we even said, like, the word “gay” casually in any kind of context at our family seders or otherwise.
Nahanni: Yeah. What do you think it would have meant to you to have our family discussion about the orange be a celebration of gay and lesbian and queer Jews, the way Susannah Heschel originally intended?
Anya: When I first started, like, really coming into my queer identity, which was in my early 20s, you know, I think I came up against what a lot of people come up against— just all the messages that it wasn't OK to be gay. Those were messages from society as a whole.
You know, I, it was such a beautiful, rich thing for me to really claim my identity and experience later on, when I got to my early 20s. But I would've loved if there were more models for me around that as a young person. I think if there had been somebody that had brought, of course, the right historical story of the orange, but, you know, actually, in any context, talked about LGBT inclusion at our seder table in those days. I think it would have—even if people had feelings about that—it would have made all of us have to consider and confront and look and feel. You know, there's just something about, like, uttering that just puts a stake in the ground of, like, this is good and worthwhile and important for us to think about together.
Nahanni: For you, what does the symbol do to kind of help bridge queer and Jewish identities?
Anya: Part of what I also felt, I think, when I started coming into my queer identity, was feeling more distanced from Jewish observant communities, because I didn't see that represented. And so I do feel like I felt, you know, my own distancing from more observant and religious communities, when that had been something that was so meaningful and rich and an important part of my life up to then.
So the orange is you know, an opportunity to say and claim, like, they shouldn't be in opposition, being queer and Jewish. This, like, luscious, sensual connected, you know, vibrant part of our community is part of our rituals. I think maybe the orange is an aspiration that it will feel that we, as a community, are strongest in our diversity.
Nahanni: So, Janice, will you put an orange on your seder plate at your seder this year?
Janice: Of course! I put everything on my seder plate. I put water, I put orange, I put…I have to look up what the beet is about. I put everything on…My seder plate’s very crowded (laughs). But now, after this conversation, you better believe it's going to have a central role. I mean, I might forget the egg. I might forget the paschal… blah, blah, blah. But I won't forget this. Definitely. No, no. So great. Thank you.
Nahanni: Thank you, Susannah Heschel for sharing the original story of the orange on the seder plate, and Janice Stieber Rous and Anya Stieber Rous for your contributions to this podcast. Thanks to all for listening to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive.
To hear first-hand stories of what it was like on the front lines of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s, check out Seasons 9 and 10 of Making Gay History. The episodes are drawn from Eric Marcus' archive of oral history interviews with LGBTQ activists and others and include Eric's own personal account of coming of age as a gay man in New York at the height of the AIDS crisis. Visit makinggayhistory.com to listen.
The Can We Talk? team includes Jen Richler and Judith Rosenbaum. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You also heard Crisper from Blue Dot Sessions.
Find us online at jwa.org/canwetalk. Join us next time for our final anniversary episode—the 50th anniversary of the first woman rabbi in America.
I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Wishing everyone who celebrates a Happy Pesach filled with meaningful rituals. Chag Sameach!
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 73: An Orange Belongs on the Seder Plate Like...." (Viewed on March 26, 2023) <https://jwa.org/episode-73-orange-belongs-seder-plate>.