Cantor Sharon Bernstein of Congregation Sha'ar Zahav participates in the Pride Seder on June 13, 2021. (Screenshot)
Cantor Sharon Bernstein of Congregation Sha'ar Zahav participates in the Pride Seder on June 13, 2021. (Screenshot)

‘It reminds us why Pride exists’: S.F. Pride Seder honors queer liberation

Although San Francisco canceled official city-sponsored Pride events this year for the second consecutive season due to the coronavirus pandemic, the LGBTQ Jewish community is still finding ways to celebrate, and to remember.

On Sunday, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav held its 16th annual Pride Seder, with participants logging on to Zoom from across the globe. The event was organized by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Jewish Community Relations Council, Keshet and the World Congress: Keshet Ga’avah.

The seder, which has become a Bay Area tradition, helps participants actively remember the long, arduous journey toward queer liberation in America in the same way that the Passover seder ritualizes the story of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland
Rabbi Mychal Copeland

“Pride has obviously changed quite a bit since its inception,” said Rabbi Mychal Copeland, who helped lead the event. “[And] with so much criticism of the corporate and marketing nature of Pride parades, the Pride Seder is crucial because it reminds us why Pride exists.”

Like the Passover seder, the Pride Seder features a written haggadah, guiding participants through LGBTQ-centered versions of traditional seder elements, such as the four questions and a seder plate. It adds unique features, for instance purposefully omitting the hand-washing ritual (to reject the notion that LGBTQ Jews are impure) and drinking four glasses of water instead of wine (because water is the source of life).

The event this year began with the traditional Hebrew blessing for seeing a rainbow — a symbol that is now synonymous with Pride. The seder also highlighted other symbols that represent the LGBTQ community’s triumphs and adversities through the decades.

Instead of a shank bone or bitter herbs, the Pride Seder plate featured a loaf of bread to symbolize the holiness of the human body, which, unlike the Passover afikomen, was left uncovered because LGBTQ Jews remained hidden for too long. In previous years, challah was used, but this year in an effort to be more inclusive to non-Ashkenazi Jews (braided challah originated among European Jews), Sha’ar Zahav switched to a loaf of bread. A cup of coffee was a reminder of the settings of early LGBTQ rights protests, such as the Cooper’s Do-nuts riot of 1959 in Los Angeles and the Compton’s Cafeteria riot of 1966 in San Francisco.

In addition to the bread and coffee, a pink triangle, a symbol worn by gay inmates in concentration camps during the Holocaust, was reclaimed as a “badge of honor, resistance and identity.” State Sen. Scott Wiener did the reading.

A bundle of sticks was used to represent confrontation against persecution and oppression, past and present. Bricks and stones, like the ones thrown at police during the Stonewall Uprising, represented walls that still need tearing down. And this year, a seashell was added to remind participants of Israelite ancestors who found freedom through crossing the sea, and to signify the community’s similar journey toward freedom.

With so much criticism of the corporate and marketing nature of Pride parades, the Pride Seder is crucial because it reminds us why Pride exists.

Maggid Elias Ramer, a regular leader of the Pride Seder, said he enjoys the creative process of updating the symbolism and wording used in the haggadah each year.

“Every year I tinker with the text, and I play a little bit with it,” Ramer said. “So this year, we had a seashell as one of the items on the seder plate,” symbolizing hope during the coronavirus pandemic, “but last year it was a feather.”

The core text of the haggadah has evolved from several that were passed around the country in the 1990s and early 2000s, from the Berkeley Queer Minyan to Aleph Kallah in Colorado and the Gay and Lesbian Committee of B’nai Jeshurun in New York. The text is treated as a living document and regularly revised to reflect the needs of the community at the time.

“When my friend Mark Horn gave me a copy of the text I was deeply moved, because it was something I hadn’t personally considered — that you could take a very clear and established piece of the Jewish tradition and morph it in that way,” Ramer said. “To me, it was an amazing, glorious door.”

The Pride Seder also always dedicates time for people to share their personal stories of coming out and meditations on living life as LGBTQ Jews.

“It connects us to our history and reminds us that we are part of something larger — our individual liberation stories become linked to a much larger narrative,” Copeland said. “And that is powerful to do in Jewish community where so much meaning comes from connecting our stories across generations, making us part of something larger than ourselves.”

Congregation Sha’ar Zahav will host two other free virtual events to celebrate Pride Month: the 15th Annual Trans & Nonbinary Celebration Shabbat on June 18 at 7:30 p.m. and the Pride Celebration Shabbat on June 25 at 7:30 p.m. Registration information can be found here.

Lea Loeb
Lea Loeb

Lea Loeb is J.'s editorial assistant.