Why an orange?The orange carries the seeds of its own rebirth.When our ancestors went forth from Mitzrayim, they passed through a narrow place and were born into the world.In our generation, the Jewish people is again giving birth to itself.For the first time, all who have been silent or silenced, all who have been invisible and marginalized women and men, gay men and lesbian women, bisexuals and transgendered people, Jews by birth and Jews by choice, and so many more all shape the future of the Jewish people.So tonight, we add this orange to our seder plate.
-Sue Levi Elwell, The Open Door, New York, CCAR, 2002, p. xix
Last week I traveled to Detroit with a group of public elementary school principals from the Galilee, on a mission to develop school-to-school partnerships with religious schools in the Detroit community.On Sunday, they visited their partner schools, many of which were holding model sedarim or at least practicing for them.Afterwards, I asked if any of them had observed the custom of placing an orange on the seder plate.The local religious school principals of course knew to what I was referring, but the Israelis had no clue.It is interesting that this custom, which is only about 25 years old, has already spread so widely and that its origins, while recent, are the subject of some historical debate.It seems that it originally symbolized the plight of lesbians or perhaps of homosexuals in general in Judaism as being outsiders, "not belonging" the way an orange doesn't belong on the seder plate.But with time it took on a general feminist direction; both understandings and more are included in Rabbi Elwell's Haggadah introduction quoted above.An entire book has been devoted to tracing the evolution of the custom (Rebecca Alpert, Like Bread on the Seder Plate, NY, 1998).By the way, at Open House, the Jerusalem center for gays and lesbians, they use a pink grapefruit.
Among Israelis of every ideological tendency, the Passover seder remains the most popular traditional observance.The overwhelming majority of Israelis report participating in a seder.Every year new editions of the Haggadah are published, with new illustrations, or with a new commentary by a famous rabbi, or with a new collection of commentaries and auxiliary readings.However, one thing that does not happen very much in Israel is the American custom of actually editing the Haggadah.The new editions are all based on the traditional text.We may find the seder boring or incomprehensible, we may skip, or speed-read but we don't tamper with the text.No substitute midrashim, no oranges, no fifth child, no four daughters.Or so I thought.
But then, Etti piped up: "We have always had an orange on our seder plate."Etti is a middle class, educated professional, a veteran public school principal.She came on aliyah from Morocco as an infant in the 50s; her family (she has seven siblings) was dumped in the "development town" of Sderot, on the border with Gaza, as part of Israel's strategy (then) of populating the periphery by busing new immigrants from the airport to tent camps in the Negev and along the borders.As an adult she made her way to the Galilee, but the family home is still in Sderot (now famous for being the constant target of Palestinian rockets and the home of defense minister Amir Peretz), and she hasn't missed a seder in her parents' home since childhood.No lesbians, no feminism."My father said we always placed an orange on the seder plate in Morocco as a symbol of our longing for Israel; and in Israel as a symbol of the memory of that longing."