The Feminist Passover: A (Third) Seder of Her Own

by Abigail Pogrebin

Adapted from My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin (Fig Tree Books LLC) and reprinted with permission.

Sensing that “there was more to feel than I’d felt, more to understand than I knew,” Abigail Pogrebin, journalist, author and casual Jew, dove into the Jewish holiday calendar to explore what it means to live a fully Jewish life. Her illuminating and relatable book about her experiences includes this account of a Seder she attended with her mom, legendary feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin.  

After our two family Seders, when a place opens up at the Feminist Seder on Sunday night and Mom invites me along, I accept. 

I go because I haven’t been to the Feminist Seder since I was in college, and I remember how powerful it was in my youth, when I attended every year starting at age twelve. 

I capitalize “the Feminist Seder” on purpose. Because although there are now hundreds of feminist Seders around the world, this is the original—the revolutionary ritual started in 1976 by the late Esther Broner (an esteemed academic and spiritual presence) in collaboration with a group of women who came to be known as “the Seder Sisters,” which includes my writer mom. 

The Feminist Seder reimagined a ritual that had largely sidelined women in the Bible, Haggadah, and the Seder ceremony itself, wherein men would traditionally do the praying, reciting, recounting, and discussing, while women did the cooking, serving, clearing, and cleaning. 

This innovative women-only observance was a highlight of my youth in the seventies and eighties, when I was still wearing the Danskin pantsuits Mom insisted looked good on me. 

Each year, after my childhood family Seders at Uncle Danny’s (first night), and Aunt Betty’s (second), I looked forward to a whole new world the third night, in New York City’s SoHo or Chelsea. There was the improvised “table”—patterned fabrics spread on the floor of someone’s loft, the pile of pillows we all brought to sit on in a huge circle, and the myriad platters that each guest contributed for the potluck meal. 

I remember being soothed by Esther Broner’s ethereal voice, being riveted by her poetic asides, pushed by her incisive questions. 

I felt privileged to be a “Seder Daughter,” sitting among leaders of the women’s movement—Gloria Steinem and former Congresswoman Bella Abzug, who always kept her famous hat on and was the only one who insisted on a chair. 

Photo by Lorin Klaris

Photo by Lorin Klaris

I remember listening attentively to the incantatory teachings of writer Phyllis Chesler (usually in a caftan); artists Bea Kreloff and Edith Isaac-Rose (the first lesbians in my life); filmmaker Lilly Rivlin—cousin of the current Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, and the director of Esther Broner: A Weave of Women, a 2013 documentary that chronicles this Seder’s evolution. 

But for reasons too complicated to enumerate here, one year the Seder Daughters were not included, and that sadly ended a precious tradition for me. I suppose I could have invented my own version as an adult, but life gets in the way. 

When Esther Broner died in 2011, the eulogies at her memorial service resurrected her voice in my mind—her ability to make examination feel holy, her reflexive warmth. 

This year’s Seder [2015] is a confirmation of her legacy, the fortieth celebration of the rite she conceived, led collaboratively by a smaller group of her devoted friends, including Rivlin; her sister, Dot; my mother; Canadian writer Michele Landsberg; Carol Jenkins, the former news anchor, now president of the Women’s Media Center; Sue Leonard, editor of Persimmon Tree, which features the writing of women over sixty; Jewish Federation executive Anita Altman; classical pianist Gena Raps; and Esther’s daughter, Nahama Broner, a professor of psychology who was always decidedly more hip than me and Robin (no Danskin pantsuits for Nahama). 

Our host Sunday night is Barbara Kane, a psychoanalyst who, when she lost her husband to Lou Gehrig’s disease—also known as ALS—in 1995, invited her close friend Esther Broner, and Robert Broner, Esther’s artist husband, to move in with her. Bob’s art is all over Barbara’s walls. The framed work he created out of the Seder Sisters’ list of “women’s plagues” is an amalgam of words thrown out that particular year by participants: “exhaustion,” “fear,” “breast cancer,” and “GW Bush.” 

After greetings and wine, Kane asks us to begin the Seder out in her hallway. We crowd into the narrow space outside the front door and cease our kibitzing as Kane reads aloud some words she drafted on her iPhone: 

Together we create this oasis, a space sacred in time. Let the magic begin. We who know the wound that never heals and the fire that never goes out come together this evening to help this strange Seder story evolve, this odd story with its gaps and omissions. We will ask questions: important, even crucial ones. . . . 

The twelve of us file into her apartment silently and take seats around Kane’s large square coffee table, set elaborately with ceramic dishes, a copper Seder plate, various individual candles, earth-colored cloth napkins encircled by delicate jungle-animal napkin rings, and bowls containing the requisite haroset, maror, matzah, and salt water. 

As has been the custom for the past forty years, each woman introduces herself by her matrilineage, and it is unexpectedly powerful for me to invoke, for the first time, my teenage daughter: “I am Abigail, mother of Molly, daughter of Letty, daughter of Ceil, daughter of Jenny.” 

Rivlin asks us to “bring an invisible guest” to the table—a woman, living or dead, whom we wish could be present. Nahama Broner brings the unnamed women of the Exodus story—the female Hebrew slaves; the seven daughters of Midian (not sure who they are, but Midian is where Moses escaped after he killed an Egyptian slavemaster); the Israelite women who danced on the shores of the Red Sea. She also brings her own daughter, Alexandra, who is currently doing development work in Kenya and who dials in via Skype to greet everyone. 

Landsberg brings Ernestine Rose, a little-known abolitionist and women’s-rights pioneer of the nineteenth century, who felt alone as a Jewish atheist among Christian activists. Rose told her friend Susan B. Anthony in a letter, “I expect never to be understood while I live.” That is a poignant quote to me, even taken out of context. It strikes me that this is something for which we all strive: to be understood. 

My mother “brings” my late aunt Betty, who warmed to the women’s movement after initially resisting it, and who eagerly participated in the Feminist Seder for years until she died in 2013. Anita Altman kindly adds her memory of meeting my aunt back in the nineties, just after Betty lost her son, my cousin Jeffrey, to AIDS, and had decided to become active in PFLAG—Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Jeffrey was my introduction to male homosexuality, and, though I wasn’t close to him, I will never forget Betty’s agony and helplessness at losing him. 

Kane’s “invisible guest” is Sabina Spielrein, a patient of Carl Jung’s who became his student and ultimately his colleague, one of the very first female psychoanalysts, though unsung to this day. She was killed by a Nazi death squad. 

Jenkins brings her five-year-old granddaughter, who happens to love the opera, and who, during their recent excursion to Aïda (which includes slave characters), asked her African-American grandma, “What’s slavery?” Jenkins said it was surreal to find herself explaining such a basic inhumanity to her progeny—“It’s when someone owns another person and tells them what to do.” That, by itself, was a profound evocation of the Exodus story. 

After the blessing over the candles, we are asked to bless the woman to our right in some private way. My mother blesses me—a little overemotionally, but I can see it’s sentimental for her to have one of her daughters back at this ceremony—and then I bless Kathleen Peratis, an attorney specializing in workplace discrimination and a writer who has taken many fact-finding trips to the West Bank and Gaza. I quietly thank her for the staunch friendship she’s shown to Mom for decades, and also for her mettle; she asserts controversial opinions without any discernible fear—a courage I lack. 

Peratis’s charge Sunday night is to offer a modern interpretation of the Seder plate. She says the scorched egg reminds us that “some of our dreams are toast,” and the matzah symbolizes simplicity. She recently listened to a public radio interview with Bruce Kramer, an ALS patient who said his fatal disease “cured him of planning.” Peratis pointed out that most of us are crazy planners and should remember, “All that really matters is simplicity.” That kicks me in the head: all I seem to do is plan, and how would my days change if they had more space and spontaneity? 

Sue Leonard uses the Ten Commandments to talk about the plight of public education.

Jenkins uses the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma march as a metaphor for coming out of the desert. 

Mom asks us to take turns reading “The Ten Plagues According to Women,” an essay she wrote back in 2010, wherein “beasts” are those who “attack women and children behind closed doors, some with mezuzot on their doorposts,” and the ninth plague of darkness is the “dark hole in Jewish history” with too many women “unnamed, unseen, unrecognized.” 

I veer, as I often do, between feeling involved and like a spectator—admiring the fact that these women still call out injustices, but not galvanized to do more to correct those wrongs myself. I see the specters of sexism but don’t experience most of them. The Four Questions are similarly more interesting than they are relatable: 

Why is this Haggadah different from traditional Haggadot? Because this Haggadah deals with the exodus of women. 

Why have our mothers on this night been bitter? Because they did the preparation but not the ritual. They did the serving but not the conducting. They read of their fathers but not of their mothers. 

Three hours elapse as we discuss the Seder symbols and pile our plates with Kane’s delicious meal. It’s nostalgic to be back in this group, but it doesn’t feel like it used to. There’s less anger now about the issues that persist; more weariness. The world is fairer, yes, but still not fair. Attitudes have evolved but are still hidebound. It’s hard to regain the wonder of my childhood perspective. 

The evening ends with my favorite rite—the draping of the so-called “Sacred Schmatta” (Yiddish for rag) around our shoulders—a chain of gauzy fabric, one piece tied crudely to the next, wrapped around our group like one continuous tallit, or prayer shawl. 

“Wait a second,” Mom says, puzzled. “This doesn’t look like the original schmatta.” 

“It’s not,” Nahama Broner concedes as she sighs patiently and then explains, evidently for the umpteenth time, that she donated the wilted original to Brandeis University, whose library houses all of her mother’s papers. 

“I can get it back on loan if we want it next year,” Broner offers. 

“I think this replacement-schmatta is beautiful,” Raps says. So we put our arms around each other, enfolded by the substitute schmatta, and sing Landsberg’s version of “Dayenu” with verses such as this one: 

If only Torah told the story
Of the women, gave them glory
If our mothers were remembered

“Next year in Jerusalem” may mean this: Next year it’s time for me and Robin to consider giving our daughters a tradition we didn’t pass on, perhaps with a group of their peers. We could show them a ritual that dramatizes how often the story is incomplete, that women’s “narrow places”—their “mitzrayim”—are not petty complaints, but urgent, persistent inequity; it’s bolstering to be in a room of self-assured, introspective, unequivocally feminist women. It changes the conversation; it’s a different kind of family. 

The Seder Sisters include these words in their Haggadah as the evening comes to an end: 

We end with grace
We greet the night
And the following dawn
In the bosom of friends
And a Seder of our own.