Women find their place at this Passover seder

By Merle Exit

Ma Nishtana, halaila hazeh, mikol ha’leilot?

Why is this night different from all other nights? This is known as the four questions recited during the traditional Passover seder, even though only one is asked. Nevertheless, the recitation is given by the youngest son present. My household had no sons and I was the youngest daughter. How quick can I learn to read Hebrew?

There are a few other rituals that puzzled me as well.

As part of the ceremonial seder, one is supposed to drink four glasses of wine along with the traditional prayer over the wine. A fifth cup is filled as part of the seder plate. It is for the prophet Elijah, who was to get the Jews out of Egypt. But it was Miriam who actually predicted that her brother, Moses, would lead the Jews out of Egypt.

When I was young I would stare at the wine glass and wonder whether Elijah was an alcoholic. I guess if Santa Claus can haul all of those toys on one night — well, you know.

I was also perplexed about why we leave the door open and pour a glass of wine for Elijah and not Miriam.

“When Miriam was 5, her mother was pregnant with Moses. Miriam prophesied and said, ‘My mother is about to bear a son who will save Israel from Egypt.’ When the time came for Yochevit to give birth, Miriam shared motherhood with her mother. On the day Moses was born, the house was filled with light. Her father kissed Miriam on the head and said, ‘Your prophesy was fulfilled.’ When years later, it was time for the exodus, Miriam sang and danced her people to victory.”

The above quote was taken from a Feminist Haggadah compiled by a former Queens feminist group called All the Queens Women, which was founded in the 1970s. Although the group is now defunct, the former members have kept their copy and, in fact, I still have mine.

A Haggadah would best be described as a publication containing the rituals, prayers and explanations of the seder. In modern times, the Haggadah, usually written in Hebrew, is now compiled of both the Hebrew and its transliteration along with English directives and explanations. The directives point to who gets to do the traditions and say the prayers as “the leader” is supposed to be a male person. In fact, the traditional Haggadah clearly centers around giving credit to men.

All the Queens Women put out an informal-looking Haggadah geared toward lauding women. The copies were xeroxed. The formal group no longer exists, but the members still have a gathering about once a year as it became a “family extension.”

Around the time that the women’s organization was meeting, it was rumored that during a speech about Jewish women and the synagogue, a rabbi stood up and said women belonged at the bimah — the altar used for the reading of the Torah — like an orange on a seder plate.

What is on the seder plate? The traditional seder plate has the following: Karpas (parsley), which gets dipped into salt water to remind us of the tender greens of the earth and salt of the sea; Charosat, a mixture of chopped nuts, apples, wine and spices that form a paste that symbolizes the mortar used to construct the pyramids; Mahror (bitter herbs) to represent the bitterness of slavery; Beitzah (roasted hard-boiled egg) has various symbols, including the spring season; Z’roah (roasted lamb shank bone) to represent the paschal lamb as a spring sacrifice whose blood was placed on the door posts of their houses so that the Angel of Death would “pass over.”

In the traditional seder a prayer is cited for each of the items (there seems to be a Jewish prayer over everything anyway). With the feminist version, an added female angle followed since the women did all the preparations but not the rituals.

“They read of their fathers but not of their mothers.”

In the movie “The Ten Commandments,” 10 plagues were put upon the Egyptians: water to blood; frogs; lice; flies; livestock diseased; thunder and hail; locusts; darkness; and death of the firstborn.

“The plagues serve to remind us of the plagues of women, including discrimination, enslavement to roles, lack of respect, rape, powerlessness, and isolation from each other.”

The seder is split into two parts with an intermission. This allows everyone to stuff themselves with delicious holiday foods such as gefilte fish, which is a cold, cooked appetizer comprised of several different white fish; chopped liver; hard-boiled egg in salt water; matzo ball soup; brisket or chicken; stuffed cabbage, matzo farfel; and matzo, of course. If your arteries are doing fine, spread some chicken fat on the matzo. No challah bread for this holiday!

A traditional song known as “Dayenu” (it would have sufficed) is sung during the seder in many verses, but the All the Queens Women’s Haggadah cites lines such as: “If our mothers had been honored for their daughters as well as for their sons, dayenu. If women had been among the writers of the Tanach [canon of the Hebrew bible] and had interpreted our creation and our role in history, dayenu.”

The conclusion of the seder has us drinking that fourth cup of wine as the leader says, “We hope that this evening’s seder has helped to strengthen our desire to gather together again to recall our past and present and to look to our future lives as women … as sisters.”