Queering the Jewish Holidays: How I Celebrate Passover

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!

happy passover banner

Passover 101

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!

orange fruit illustration

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.

Vanessa is a queer feminist writer and photographer currently based in New York. She really misses Portland. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 293 articles for us.

27 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this Vanessa! I loved your Hannukah article, and this one is great as well!

    My family already does many of these things, which I really love. My parents have for a few years now allowed me to add an orange to our seder plate and explain its significance, which I really appreciate. My dad has spent literally my entire lifetime editing his Haggadah to make it more fun for the kids in our family, more accessible for the non-Jews we always invite, and more meaningfully relevant to current events. And, in 2017 especially I’ve been doing my best to take time at each years’ seder to relate the story of Passover to the present plight of millions of immigrants and refugees around the world. And hopefully impress upon my more conservative relatives why the right-wing talking points on immigration are such an anathema to Judaism.

    I don’t know that even with all that Passover necessarily feels queer to me – I’ve never NOT been the only queer person at a Seder – but all of those things at least allow Passover to feel more queer-inclusive and progressive to me.

    • i’m so glad you are into this series! i’m excited to talk about rosh hashana and yom kippur in the fall. i think making a traditional family seder a bit more queer is really important and valuable – i love everything you shared and am happy for you that your family is open to all of that! and i LOVE that your dad has always edited the haggadah – that’s so inspiring to me!!

  2. Thank you for this, Vanessa! When I saw you looking for people to talk to about this, I felt a little sad, because I still attend two very traditional seders with my family each year. I love being with my family, but I don’t know if I feel ready enough on my own to contribute some queer and less traditional things to the seder. But recognizing that me being at the seder makes it just a little queerer, and hopefully I’ll be able to bring some of these elements to my seder. Right now, we are still using those red and gold haggadot that only mention sons and not daughters, and only some of my family can self-edit…

    • aw babe, i feel you. it can be scary to ask to take up space at family gatherings…but i want to say that you being in those spaces is queering them, and it’s brave and cool, AND i hope one day we get to celebrate a jewish holiday together. <3

  3. This very saturday I attended an early Passover-Seder here in Berlin! It was not a queer event (as far as I know 😉 ), but took place at a non-profit where people from all over the world get in touch, often via cooking together. We took turns reading from the Haggadah in German, English and Arabic (and of course blessings in Hebrew) and talked a lot at our table. It was my first Seder, and it was lovely!

  4. I love this, thanks Vanessa!

    I read a memoir by an old-school Jewish feminist, and she talked about how she made feminist seders in the ’70’s. They modified the telling of the Passover story to foreground the women, who are definitely there and extremely important but rarely foregrounded. Then, they added a section where they read and discussed badass Jewish women in history, of whom it turns out there are a lot!! (Also rarely discussed.)

    Not explicitly queer, but I loved the idea of taking this thing we think we know about and flipping it on its head with a totally different perspective.

    Chag sameach, AS!

  5. We do a fairly traditional Seder with my wife’s family, and I agree that it’s queer because we’re queer! It has been fun to watch my nieces and nephews grow up around the Seder table, from the stage of “Quick! Put on the Rugrats Passover special before they explode!” to now missing some of them because they have jobs in other states. A couple of them have turned out to be queer too, and it’s a great feeling to have been at least a bit of a role model in two senses. Hag sameach, everyone!

    • The Rugrats special is something special at least for me. I love it as it showed me a the story done in a way that felt very kid friendly but also Jewish. And Grandpa Boris’s story telling was what made it better for me.

  6. Love everything about this. I am Persian(as some of you may know) so my family has and still celebrates it in a more Mizrahi/Persian style they celebrated in Iran. Like we called it halegh & not Charoset(got confused the first time I heard it at Hebrew school). Ashkenazi variant is more apple centric while Mizrahi generally use fig and dates as the more common ingredient along with the other stuff usually in it like walnuts and sweet wine. Side note color and texture can also vary depending on, which part of Iran recepie is from and not uncommon to see 2-3 variants on the table. It’s more of a family reunion on my father side as there are relatives I haven’t seen since Roshanah so it’s usually around 30 people. Yeah it’s not going to be fun this year.

  7. This post makes me feel so seen!!! I have been preparing for a few weeks to host a Seder on my own for the first time, and am compiling my own Haggadah, which I have wanted to do since I was a teenager. I will be the only jew there which feels a little weird (how did I end up with such goy community where I am?) but there will be plenty of queers! I have always loved the radical and revolutionary potential in Passover, and feel both excited and daunted about manifesting it this year.

    Thank you so much for sharing!

  8. I want to know more.

    For me being raised Christian, a Lutheran in fact, I found it hard to understand how a god is a father of all in a house in some human form as a figure head living somewhere in a place called heaven.

    furthermore that Jesus was Jewish born into a Jewish family and that Moses lead the Jewish people out of oppression by the Egyptians which is a story taught with Christian spin. I was always left with doubt that still remains to this day leaving me to wonder about how true Christianity is. It does not feel like it’s my truth even if I was brought up that way.

    But it seems overwhelming to me to learn so late in life.

    Thank you Vanesa for sharing. I would like to be invited to a Seder but it feels rude to ask.

  9. my friends have a feminist haggadah they use for seders we’ve had, i can send you some stuff from it if you’d like! i usually do one with my family and then try to have one with friends. i also don’t understand why we don’t eat charoset all year round because it’s the best.

  10. Thanks for writing this! I hold my own seder most years and write my own Haggadot drawn from other folks’ versions. This is one of my favorite social justice haggadot written by queer and trans folks (note-the trans author identifies using the t-slur so it’s included in several places, so heads up as a trigger warning and also heads up to be mindful of language if you’re drawing from this and not including the self identification part). I love that this haggadah includes different pronouns for G-d in the blessings and different language/pronunciations so it is inclusive of Jews from many backgrounds and doesn’t center Ashkenazi folks. It also includes a revision of the 4 questions from the forgotten 4 children, and includes questions like “what’s up with the gender essentialist crap?” “why aren’t we out smashing the state?” and my personal fav from the Eco-feminist crusty punk rock vegan hypochondriac child”: “Was this haggadah printed in a union shop on post consumer recycled hemp paper using soy ink that was not tested on animals, and has anyone seen my inhaler?”
    https://saltyfemme.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/haggadah.pdf

    • I second loving this haggadah. As it instructs at the beginning, it’s way more content than one seder can accommodate, and includes some choose your own adventure options, so we’ve incorporated different elements of it into the haggadah we compile every year. I have seen other social justice haggadot that dispense with lots of the traditional ways to do things when they re-imagine a social justice seder, which is totally cool if that’s your thing, but I love that this one has all the traditional elements next to some truly radical and artistic additions.

      • right?! The combo of the traditional and radical elements is so invigorating and calming to me in this haggadah. And yes, waaay too much for one seder, especially if people are really getting into it and processing all the questions and prompts.

  11. My little sis is hosting a queer feminist inclusive Seder down in Austin and my mom apparently sent her something she called a “social justice Haggadah” so apparently those are for sale somewhere bc she sure as shit didn’t make it herself.

    Also, THERE IS A QUEER YIDDISH GROUP IN PORTLAND?

  12. I’m getting ready to host a queer/women’s/radical seder, so this is super helpful! So excited that you wrote about this!

    I compiled a queer Hagaddah a few years ago in college, but definitely needs some updating now. I also forced a bunch of straight cis men to have passover with me with said Haggadah, and they were so hilariously uncomfortable, but I think I am not inviting any cis men anymore…

  13. At first I was sad because this reminded me that I have no family, friends, or queer community around to celebrate passover with this year so I’m probably just gonna eat some matzah for breakfast alone in my apartment, but damn if this doesn’t make me so excited to go to a queer af seder in a year or two once I hopefully get my life back together. I feel seen and heard. Thank you so much for this article <3

  14. This is my third year hosting my own seder. I grew up with a haggadah that my mother had assembled in the late 80’s, zine-style, by cutting and pasting text from other haggadahs and filling in the rest on her typewriter. As an adult, a friend and I decided to use the parts of her haggadah that we like, and to add our own pieces in. It’s such a joy to do Passover on our own terms, and fill a dining room with jews and queers. Since passover, for us, involves bringing together a bunch of people who don’t all know each other, our seder includes time for people to introduce themselves and their preferred pronouns. We also sing hinei ma tov, because it’s so great to be in community together! We dedicate the various cups of wine to things like gratitude for the labor that went into making the meal possible (from people who picked the grapes to whoever ladles the soup), and to a world at peace. We talk about how slavery is ongoing in our world, and how the fact of our Jewish survival (through our own tenacity as well as the courage and compassion of others) means having our past teach us how deeply our fates are bound up with everyone else’s. We make resolutions for concrete steps we can take to deepen our commitment to freedom for everybody. Also the whole thing is a coloring book, nine of the plagues are illustrated, and you can grab a marker if you get fidgety.

    I wanted to also add that haggadot.com has a whole range of free (donation-optional) haggadahs to download, with all kinds of themes.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.