The Orange on the Seder Plate

By Ilene Rosenblum
Saturday, April 26, 2008

When Jews and others gathered for Passover Seders in recent days, they asked a traditional question of the occasion: ''Why is this night different than other nights?''

To prepare for the eight-day holiday, which ends tomorrow night at sundown, many area communities hosted Seders different not only from all other nights, but also from all other Seders.

Perhaps the most widely practiced Jewish ritual, the Seder (meaning "order'' in Hebrew), is a sequence of prayers and symbolic foods eaten to commemorate the Jews' deliverance from slavery in Egypt.

With the idea that liberation from bondage remains a dream for many people, even today, an interfaith Freedom Seder was held at Washington Hebrew Congregation on Wednesday. About 150 representatives from Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Sikh communities joined, with each faith taking turns reading from the Haggadah, a book of Passover prayers and songs. The Seder incorporated poems and prayers from other faiths to emphasize the universality of the story of liberation from bondage and to recognize oppression in modern times.

"It's just amazing, because what we are discussing here and reading here and sharing here is exactly the same tragedy that my people are facing," said Mohamed Yahya, 44, originally from Al Geneina, in Sudan's Western Darfur. The founder and executive director of the Damanga Coalition for Freedom and Democracy, Yahya has been fighting to end the violence in his homeland since the latest conflict began in 1993.

Churches and synagogues have been instrumental in bringing the world's attention to the crisis in Sudan and have the power to end the violence, he said. "They have a very strong voice."

In another effort to bring attention to modern oppression, Jews United for Justice hosted a Labor Seder on April 15 at Adas Israel synagogue in Washington. About 200 labor leaders, activists and families gathered to recognize workers' rights, and their campaign to give District residents a vote in Congress. "Passover is the quintessential story of liberation from bondage and oppression," said JUFJ executive director Jacob Feinspan.

In addition to the obligatory wine or grape juice, tablemates also filled each others' glasses with drinks produced by socially conscious, Bethesda-based Honest Beverages. But what stood out the most was the orange on the Seder plate.

Many stories have circulated about how the custom of including an orange, fairly common at progressive Seders, began. Les Trachtman of the Washington Chapter of the Jewish Labor Committee, reading from the Haggadah, explained what it meant in the context of the evening's event: ''The orange reminds us that our Passover traditions are not only about remembering the past -- that they can and should speak to today's struggles for equality."

One of the hardships that some Jews encounter is facing dueling identities of being gay and Jewish, said Alex Greenbaum of the D.C. Jewish Community Center's Stuart S. Kurlander Program for Gay & Lesbian Outreach and Engagement (GLOE), which hosted a Stonewall Seder with the Human Rights Campaign and the D.C. Center for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people.

About 60 people gathered at the Human Rights Campaign building March 30 to discuss their community's struggles, juxtaposing the story of the Jews' deliverance from bondage in Egypt with the story of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, a landmark in the modern gay rights movement.

''There is a real thread of similarity between the stories,'' said Marie Britt of Takoma Park, who came with her partner, Elizabeth McCain. McCain added: ''It speaks to us even though we didn't grow up in a Jewish family.''

It can be difficult to be both gay and Jewish, said GLOE committee member Alex Greenbaum. ''It's a season that really pulls at a core Jewish identity, especially for gay, lesbian, transgender, queer people,'' he said. ''We're really forced to negotiate these dueling identities.''

The orange at the Seder plate that evening signified acceptance of diversity. The fruit, GLOE Director Justin Lerner explained, ''symbolizes something that wasn't supposed to be there but it's there now.''

The orange also found its place at Miriam's Seder on April 6. The event at the DCJCC celebrated the role of women in the exodus and in Jewish life.

In addition to the orange, the Seder plate featured other symbols to recognize the struggles of modern women. A coffee bean stood for the bitterness and stress of juggling professional and family life, and an empty cup recognized a need for space to nurture oneself.

Most of the 60 women sang and tapped along as singer/songwriter Jill Moskowitz played the guitar to accompany prayers.

''It makes me feel connected in a way that I don't feel at a traditional Seder,'' said Shirley Gross, 62, of Reston.

During the meal, Katherine Soffer, of Cheverly, said the feminist movement relates to the Passover story. ''I can identify with difficult passage,'' she said. As a law student in the late 1960s, there were few female students or practicing attorneys. ''It was difficult to establish myself professionally, but I ultimately did.''

For a lighthearted Passover education activity, Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County's United Synagogue Youth chapter led a chocolate Seder for children. Chocolate-dipped apples substituted for greens, and chocolate chips replaced horseradish to appeal to younger palates.

''They could eat something they would like and get the gist of what is supposed to be on the Seder plate," said the congregation's youth director, Adam Zeren.

Katie Friedman, 18, president of the synagogue's youth group, who helped organize the Seder, said it helped the children learn some of the rituals like dipping their finger in wine (chocolate milk in this case) ahead of the holiday.

''I think it got them really excited for Passover with their family, and [to realize] that Jewish holidays can be a lot of fun,'' she said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company