The second annual women’s seder on April 5, which I helped organize, was nothing like the first. While the seder’s theme was the same — a focus on the women of the Exodus story — the nature of the gathering decidedly was not.
Though women’s seders have been going on for decades in the Bay Area, I had never been to one until last year.
Last year, 25 women gathered in a Benicia rental hall for a four-hour celebration using an original haggadah written for the occasion. This week, about the same number — some returnees, some new — came together on Zoom, the online technology that allowed the virtual seder to take place in a time of social distancing. Aside from a few minor technical glitches, all agreed it was an uplifting event to take part in while sheltering at home in deference to the modern-day plague of Covid-19.
“We were able to give women a place to come to for a seder; many of them wouldn’t have gone to one otherwise,” said Geri Kahn, an immigration lawyer who lives in Benicia and conceived of the idea last year. “And on top of that, we gave women a chance to be at a seder during this difficult time.”
Said one participant: “It was perfect.”
The women who attended represented a wide range of ages, occupations and faith backgrounds, and came from all over the Bay Area and as far away as Arizona and Texas.
Suisun City resident Gail Lamkins, past president of both Vallejo’s Congregation B’nai Israel, and the Napa Solano chapter of Hadassah, said she was pleasantly surprised.
“The haggadah was fabulous. I absolutely enjoyed the focus on women of the Bible,” she said. “I had never experienced a seder via Zoom and was concerned we would not have the ability to be meaningful. I was wrong.”
Lamkins said the 2½-hour event brought her “immeasurable joy in being able to see familiar faces and hear familiar voices.”
The seder included music recorded by Cantor Sharon Bernstein of San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, and songs by the late Debbie Friedman. There was also a live performance of the original composition “Higher Connection” by Bay Area-based, internationally renowned guitarist and composer Peppino D’Agostino.
The seder was titled “It All Really Started with Yocheved,” named for the Israelite slave and mother of Moses, who was raised as a prince of Egypt and led the Hebrews out of bondage — the story Jews everywhere are compelled to repeat annually at Passover.
When Kahn conceived of the idea of a women’s seder, she approached two women to help her write the haggadah — Rachel Lessem of Fairfield and myself. We knew each other through B’nai Israel and had worked together on a Jewish radio program we launched in Vallejo called Kol D’var, which lasted some four years.
“[It] was the first year that I had not spent Passover with my mother,” Kahn said. “She passed away in August 2018. I realized I had to do something if I wanted to observe the holiday.”
Kahn said another factor that motivated her to create a women’s seder was to help restore the power of women’s voices, which she said have eroded since 2016.
We were able to give women a place to come to for a seder; many of them wouldn’t have gone to one otherwise.
When I heard the idea, I realized I had never given thought to the women of this story, because they are mostly absent from the typical haggadah. And it’s not just Moses’ mother and his sister, Miriam, but also the lesser-known Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah. Pharaoh ordered them to kill all the Israelite male children, but they refused, in what has been described as one of the earliest known acts of civil disobedience.
There was also Pharaoh’s daughter, who plucked the baby Moses from the water and who, though unnamed in the Bible, was given the name Batya (daughter of God) by the rabbis for her bravery in raising a non-Egyptian in her home.
Another figure is Moses’ wife, the Midianite woman Tziporah. All told, six women were crucial to saving the Israelites. Not all were Jewish, which brings home the point that non-Jewish heroines are integral characters in our story.
“After reading ‘The Red Tent’ a few times, I realized women have a place in Jewish history,” Lessem said, “and it was important to me to find out who those women were and the role they played in the Passover story, which traditionally is more about history, while I’m more about herstory.”
At the seder, Lamkins said, “I learned of the Women of the Wall who to this day face penalties, including fines and prison for simply praying out loud. I was reminded of our own individual roles in helping and healing.”
Having lost her 90-year-old mother-in-law earlier that same day, Lamkins echoed the feelings expressed by several participants, though with some added poignancy.
“Being a part of the Passover service that afternoon helped me feel so much closer to God,” she said. The seder “will forever be etched in my memory. Being able to participate … helped me realize I’m not in this alone.”
Kahn said she spoke with one woman during the seder who “had been depressed about everything going on and this really gave her something to look forward to. I think there were a lot of people who probably felt that way.”
The woman also admitted that “it gave her a reason to get dressed and she even put on some makeup,” said Kahn.
While pleased with the way the virtual seder went, organizers fervently hope it won’t be necessary to do it like that again.
“What I would like to see happen in the future is that we will all be in good health, the virus will be gone, and we will be able to find a venue to hold it in where we can be together,” Kahn said.