Can I confess something? As I write this article, I haven’t ever hosted a Passover seder on my own. I moved out of my parents’ house 12 years ago and have celebrated (and not celebrated – I’m looking at you, Passover 2009 when I was traveling through Italy) Passover in a variety of ways since then, but I’ve not ever been the host of my own seder… until this year!
This year, on the first night of Passover (which is Friday, March 30 – you’re welcome!) my friend Risa and I will be hosting approximately 14 humans at a queer seder! Risa is a professional chef who hosts queer dinners in Portland, OR and has previously hosted a 30 person progressive seder for which she made her own Haggadah, and I am very fun and nice, so I’m sure we’ll make a great pair of co-hosts!
What will make our seder queer? Well, mostly the fact that two queer women are hosting it and almost all the attendees identify as queer. No, but seriously, as I think back to writing the Hanukkah edition of this Queering the Jewish Holidays series, I think about how many concrete tangible things I suggested to “queer” that holiday. When it comes to Passover and the seder, I don’t feel quite so certain. Many of my queer Jewish friends I spoke to while writing this felt equal amounts of uncertainty. “I’m not sure I queer it that much,” my friend Emma wrote me, when I asked her. I met Emma when we both served on the Hillel board in college and she invited me to my very first queer seder the year I came out, so it was both surprising and relieving to hear that she had similar feelings around the queerness of her Passover celebration. “Granted, I think everything I do is queer,” she followed up. I agree. (I agree that everything a queer person does is queer, if they want it to be, and also I agree that everything Emma does is queer, for the record.)
One more note before we begin! I’m writing this from the perspective of a Jewish lesbian who was raised in both conservative and reform synagogues, went to Jewish Day School but rarely goes to synagogue now, had a Bat Mitzvah and celebrates Shabbat sometimes but not always, and is working up the courage to drop in on the queer Yiddish group that meets in Portland, OR every weekend. All of which is to say: I am not an expert on anything except my own version of Judaism, and I am not trying to explain What It Means To Be Jewish And Celebrate Passover, I am simply sharing my own experience. I am also very nervous about all this, can you tell?! OKAY GREAT!
In very very short, the Passover story is an Exodus tale that takes place in ancient Egypt. The Jews are slaves, and God/Moses helps them get free via ten plagues. That is literally the shortest version of the Haggadah (the text used to tell the Passover story on the holiday) that I can come up with – forgive me if it seems overly simplistic. I trust that a lot of folks reading this post already know the story of Passover, and if you don’t I strongly encourage you to either Google it or get yourself invited to a fun queer seder this year! Moving right along! To commemorate the story of how we got free and express gratitude for our lives and religion, modern day Jews sit down to a seder every year and also give up chametz – literally “leaven, or food mixed with leaven,” aka bread, other yeast products, and a variety of things that always make me go “Really?! That too?!?!” – for eight days. The word seder is a Hebrew word that literally means “order,” and the meal we share together and rituals we partake in at a seder do have a very specific order. However, one of my favorite parts about being a queer Jew is that it is possible to follow Jewish tradition and infuse it with some queerness, thus keeping up with traditions and also feeling personally connected to what I’m partaking in.
What does a queer seder look like?
The more I delve into this personal reckoning, the more I’m realizing it felt easier to talk about tangible ways to queer Hanukkah because it is an eight night holiday that allows for celebration on every evening. You light the candles, you play dreidel, you share community, etc. Passover can feel a little bit overwhelming because aside from not eating bread for eight days, the main celebration of the holiday happens at seder, which is either on the first night or on the first and second night of the holiday, depending on your Jewish heritage. So to me, that feels a little bit like: if I don’t queer up my seder, am I even a Jewish dyke celebrating Passover in a queer way? To this I’d like to say, if you’re a queer Jew celebrating a Jewish holiday in the way you prefer, you’re doing a great job, and also, let’s talk about some ways to queer a seder!
1. Put an orange on your seder plate
The seder plate sits on the seder table and holds five or six important items that hold symbolic meaning and are referenced throughout the meal. Adding an orange to your traditional seder plate is badass, and explaining to your guests why it’s there is the best. When I asked Emma if she had the orange on her seder plate she said yes. “I explain the GAY reason for the orange,” she said, “since a lot of people just think it’s about feminism, not [lesbians].” This is very true – in fact, before I came out, I put an orange on my seder plate dutifully and totally thought it was just about feminism. Learning that it was gay (and that the gay roots of the story are often ignored) makes an orange on the seder plate feel like a super radical choice to me. I do this even if I’m celebrating at my family’s traditional seder, and it feels really special that my parents are supportive of it and always ask me to explain it to our guests. I love explaining gay shit to queers and straight people alike so this feels really good to me, but if you’re more shy you could print out little explainers about the significance of the orange and hand them out at your seder.
2. Edit your Haggadah
I mentioned that Risa made her own Haggadah, the book that guests of the seder read the story of Passover from throughout the long meal/celebration, for a progressive seder she hosted in the past. At the queer seder Emma organized through Keshet, co-hosted, and invited me to in college, she and her co-host created a Haggadah, too. “I took some of my dad’s stuff and various Progressive haggadot [and made it] my own,” Emma said. That seder was extremely well attended and as a participant, I felt I learned a lot about Judaism and a lot about queerness that I hadn’t thought about before. The Haggadah was especially meaningful to me, because it reminded me that as queer Jews we have the ability to rewrite certain narratives in our religion that hurt us, and also write new traditions and truths to follow for years to come.
This year for the seder Risa and I are hosting together, we’re going to use pieces of the Haggadah she created years ago, pieces of a traditional Haggadah that my family uses, and pieces of the queer Haggadah Emma handed out at the college seder I attended as a baby dyke. But if creating your own Haggadah from scratch seems overwhelming, there are other ways you can queer your text up at your seder. If you are the host of your seder, you can do some research beforehand about what you’d like to bring up that relates to the Passover story, and you can pepper the meal with questions and discussion. If you are attending a seder, you can ask the host if it would be okay to have a section of the meal reserved for attendees to bring up things the host may not have thought to include. And if you’d like to create some formal documents but don’t want to create an entire new Haggadah, you can turn to the internet. Keshet has some amazing resources per always, including an insert titled “Four Allies / Four Questions” that can be used as a stand alone or can be incorporated into a seder, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has a variety of haggadot available for download that can be used “by families and congregations who wish to celebrate Passover with a unique perspective on social justice topics.”
3. Don’t let the traditional traditions trip you up
When I asked Emma about how she celebrates Passover now versus how she celebrated as a kid, she explained that she used to go to really large family seders as a child, with 20+ people, and obviously she was not the leader of those seders. As she’s grown older, she has become the person in her family to lead seders. “For me, it’s important, as the most Jewish member of my family, to continue traditions and try to make them fun,” Emma said. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to wrangle enough people, but I don’t let a minyan stop me.” That simple sentence really threw me, because I realized that I also like to continue traditions and I hadn’t even thought about a minyan! A minyan is a group of ten adults (in some sects of Judaism these adults have to be men, but I don’t think I have to tell you that’s not the kind of Judaism I practice) over the age of 13, and in Judaism that is technically the number of humans you need to do “public worship.”
Anyway, obviously you can tell from this post that I’m a little, uh, lax in the way I interact with my religion, so maybe I would never care about a minyan for any event, but I thought this was important enough to mention because it speaks to a larger fear I think a lot of us have when trying to recreate things we did as children with our biological families. It can feel scary to take on an event your parents or extended family used to organize, whether you have positive or negative or neutral memories about it, specifically because we’re often feeling like it’s important to continue a tradition. It can feel overwhelming to know that you don’t care about certain “traditional traditions,” or really scary to actively create new ones even when you would like to continue old ones.
But it’s so cool that we get to do this! As queers, and as queer Jews, we are literally recreating expectations and assumptions at all times. Give yourself permission to do this with your seder. Carry on the traditions that matter to you (even if that’s literally just having a seder) and let go of the stuff that doesn’t.
4. Invite folks who have never been to a seder
My friend Keely told me she tries to host a seder every year, and she specifically likes to invite at least a couple of non-Jewish folks who have never been to a seder before. “I call it my annual Seder for Vagrants, Goyim, and Delinquents,” she said. Emma also expressed a particular joy in introducing folks who have never experienced a seder before to the holiday. “I love Passover,” she said. “I love singing the songs. I love explaining the story. I love getting drunk. I love charoset. I love trying to make it relevant to people who know nothing about the situation.”
I personally think Judaism is a pretty cool religion, and being Jewish is special to me. Inviting folks who don’t know anything about Judaism, Passover, or seders to share the experience with me is a teaching tool that helps my friends understand me better, and helps us all talk about things we may not otherwise discuss.
5. Get really real
When I think about what I’d like to add to the seder I’m hosting with Risa that wasn’t necessarily present at the seders I attended as a kid, and when I asked Emma and Keely what they might like to add to their seders moving forward, we all landed on social justice and activism. “I’d love to bring more social justice-y stuff into my seders,” Emma said, though I have to give her credit that the queer Haggadah she helped put together in 2010 definitely did cover more social justice than I’d ever seen at a seder before. “To my mind, standing up to oppression is part of what it means to be queer,” Keely said. I agree, and I would add that standing up to oppression is part of what it means to be Jewish.
It is a privilege to gather 10+ queer adults to share a meal, and I think it would be a wasted opportunity to not address hard conversations, brainstorm ways to be better allies and activists in the upcoming year, and talk about the inherent resistance of the Passover story as a framework for how we can resist and help fellow oppressed humans resist in 2018.
I do truly think that by virtue of being a Jewish lesbian, when I celebrate Passover, it is a queer celebration. When we were texting, Keely said this thing that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about: “I think that the spirit of Judaism is pretty queer, intrinsically; it’s all about resistance and resilience and community.” I wrote that in my journal and underlined it twice. Yes, exactly.
To my fellow Jewish queers out there: How do you celebrate Passover? Does it feel queer to you? Tell me all about it. Chag sameach!
This year, Passover starts at sundown on Friday, March 30 and ends at sundown on Saturday, April 7.