Every woman at the Mother-Daughter Seder at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco last week brought along a memento, a keepsake.
Some brought weathered black-and-white photos of their ancestors, others shared beloved Shabbat candle holders or their grandmother’s hand-scrawled recipe for the perfect matzah ball.
Aileen Frankel and her 24-year-old daughter, Alicia Sabuncuoglu, shared their ornate Havdallah spice box, which belonged to Frankel’s mother when she lived in Eastern Europe.
More than 70 women, from infants through octogenarians, gathered at circular tables and explained their personal connections to the physical objects — an exercise meant to reignite memories of the strong Jewish women in their families.
This was the first clue that the Mother-Daughter Seder would be different from traditional seders. One major goal of the gathering was to give women the tools to bring home a feminist perspective on Passover.
“Sometimes we don’t find women’s stories in our text,” explained Emanu-El Rabbi Sydney Mintz, who led the seder. “As women in 2010, we peel back the layers of text and figure out where we fit in.”
Although the March 23 event was Emanu-El’s third annual Mother-Daughter Seder, many of the women were taking part for the first time. That was the case for Shelli Semler of San Francisco, who said she attended because she wanted to bring home some new perspectives to her family seder. Semler came with her 10-year-old daughter, Scarlett.
At the start of the event, the women dropped off an array of potluck items they had prepared — everything from traditional charoset to vegan chopped liver — then introduced themselves to one another. Soon, the topic of conversation turned to the seder plate, this one adorned not only with an orange, but also with seven eggs.
Mintz explained that the eggs represent birth, and then she queried the women about the orange, asking them to tell their versions of what it represents. Oft-repeated tales were dispelled as popular myths, as Mintz presented what she said is the true story of the orange on the seder plate: Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies, first proposed the idea in the early 1980s to symbolize a commitment to those marginalized within the Jewish community, along with gay and lesbians.
Through colorful storytelling and song-leading by cantorial soloist Marsha Attie, Mintz then got to work re-envisioning and reinterpreting the story of Passover.
She began the seder with a question that elicited a ripple of knowing laughter: “Who was the first woman in the Passover story?” she asked rhetorically. “Moses’ mother of course. She sent him off in the basket — and this tends to resonate with children.”
Throughout the seder, which was not in a traditional order, the group raised glasses of wine (or grape juice) to different modern Jewish women heroes, including Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service and AnatHoffman of Women of the Wall.
Mintz asked the youngest daughters to come forward and ask a new set of Four Questions, including: “Why do we gather only women here tonight?” and “Why do we need to celebrate our feminism in a Jewish context?”
At one point, Mintz asked everyone to grab hold of a stalk of green onion and wave it above their heads. The women then danced the Israeli folk dance “Zemer Atik” (the Old Melody) backed by Attie’s acoustic guitar.
This was followed by a discussion of the Ten Plagues, along with the question of what constitutes some additional recent plagues. Among the various responses, one 8-year-old girl shouted out “the unavailability of food,” and Mintz agreed that hunger is indeed a modern plague.
That girl, Laurel, was attending the Mother-Daughter Seder for the first time, along with her mother, Janice Berman, and grandmother, Cathy Berman. They were one of a half-dozen three-generation families in attendance.
Cathy explained that Passover is a special time for her and her family, and that she has cooked the family Passover meal for the past 20 years. And though she lives in the East Bay, she happily shlepped from Richmond to Congregation Emanu-El last week for what she knew would be an energetic event.
“If Rabbi Mintz is hosting something, we’re coming,” Cathy said. “When she speaks, I hear.”