Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot?*

Last night was the first night of passover. We attended a Seder at a friend's house. Indeed, it was "different from all other nights".

It was a vegetarian Seder, a night no lambs would die. It was sumptuous and strange to me but hardly unprecedented. The singing and the sharing were spirited and transporting.

As was the wont of our hostess, it was a feminist Seder. Haggadot, the scripts, if you will, for passover celebrations exist in a thousand varieties and making up our own is a family tradition at Casa Greensmile. Feminist and egalitarian Haggadot predate the blooming of counter cultures of the 60s from which time the Haggadah in hand last night, was a relic. In last night's Seder, there was more Miriam and water metaphors and less Moses and miracles. I do not consider this excess license. The Exodus proof texts need no stretching to be seen as inspired struggles by disenfranchised classes of people against their oppressors. And, clearly, the tradition calls for adaptation of the story's spirit of struggle for freedom to whatever slavery we may find imposed on us in our own lives.

The center of the Passover table is a "Seder plate" with a fixed set of symbolic items, an egg, a raw chunk of horse radish root, and so on. Discussion of the meaning of each is a required, though wildly interpreted, part of the custom. An orange is added at feminist Seders and, in sympathy to that custom, it appears on the table at many of the liberal reform Seders I have attended. Being a "new tradition" it prompts more prominent mention than the items of more traditional ritual. Reading and reciting always pass around the table. Participation of all is an obligation. Had the turn to explain the orange fallen to me, I thought I could, off the top of my head, provide its place in the narrative of passover:**

Wrong! At last night's Seder, a dogeared printout of an email was at the hostess's elbow during the meal. It described a conversation in which Susannah Heschel sets the record straight about why the orange got onto the Seder plate. Who put that story back in the closet? So I discover in my googling this morning that the correct version of the history of the orange on the Seder plate is not at all unknown information but rather that, in ten years of encountering that orange, only the "cleaned up" version has circulated within my hearing. Where is the liberation it that?

More often than not all that is "new" is our personal rediscovery of what is in fact old.
It seems that no matter how much is said, and no matter how much tolerance a group collectively professes, there are still some truths they will not speak. The intensity of many Seders reaches its peak with a wish or affirmation that all people should be free from oppression. I see that even we who pride ourselves on our fairness do not recognize every form of oppression and know every injustice that works its harms on strangers and even our own neighbors. While that jot of revelation is still one of its possible outcomes, this is one tradition that really should go on indefinitely.

* the traditional question that begins the telling of the passover story: "why is this night different from all others?"

**I do not want to be party, via search engines, to the further propagation of a bowdlerized version of the justification for the new tradition of an orange on the Seder table. By using a paint program to imagize the text of the inaccurate version I would have otherwise put in quotes, I make mis-quoted or out of context search results very unlikely. Its a technique I would recommend to bloggers who work the border territories of contested public and parochial opinion and can expect to be actively quote mined.