Jewish Feminists Reclaiming Passover
Women are taking Passover back from the Jewish patriarchy. Of all the Jewish holidays, why have they picked Passover to take a stand?
The Meaning & Mechanics of Passover
Like many Jewish holidays (e.g. Hannukah, Purim, Tisha B’Av, and Shavuot), Passover is a reminder of a specific historical event: in this case, the Jewish slaves’ escape from Egypt and the Pharaoh who oppressed them.
I grew up in a conservative Jewish family and followed the rules of Passover. I’ve been there, year after year, and I’m here to tell you that I prefer Yom Kippur’s 25-hour fast to eight days of Passover. Keep reading and you’ll see what I mean.
For eight days celebrants abstain from certain foods to commemorate the unleavened bread the refugees brought with them to eat. The belief is that the Jewish slaves were in such a rush to escape they had no time to let their bread rise. Over the centuries rabbis have, as they are wont to do, interpreted the living crap out of this tradition by making it ridiculously onerous, especially for a vegan like me (though both my mother, mother-in-law and sister-in-law have gone to heroic lengths to keep me happy and fed).
The result of the rabbis’ pronouncements means that, depending on one’s particular flavor of Judaism, the following are off the menu for eight days: legumes (beans, lentils, peas, and peanuts — no peanut butter for over a week! — mustard, popcorn, soy and soy products, string beans, corn, and for some reason, licorice) and five grains (wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt), because they might come into contact with water and rise.
But, and in these kinds of religious rules there is almost always a “but,” the five grains are allowed if they are fully cooked no more than 18 minutes after they come in contact with water. If you want to know what kind of food that requirement yields, get yourself a box of “shmurah” (extra for sure kosher for Passover definitely no doubt) matzah. (See photo above.) Or lick the ashes on the floor of your fireplace — it’s basically the same thing.
Jews are not allowed even to own any chametz (food that is prohibited for Passover) during the eight-day holiday. They usually accomplish this by signing their chametz over to their rabbi, who “sells” it to a non-Jew, who then “sells” it back at the end of the holiday.
Nonetheless, no chametz is allowed in the kitchen. Jews who observe Passover strictly have to sanitize their kitchens, and I’m talking about EVERYTHING, down to pulling out and boiling every shelf in the refrigerator. Most everything gets boiled, and where that isn’t possible, e.g. the inside of an oven, some people pull out a blowtorch to burn off every speck of chametz. They have extra sets of dishes, pots & pans, utensils, etc., that are only used for Passover. Some people even go so far as to have a second kitchen in their house that is used solely for Passover. That is how far people are willing to go to avoid the pain and labor of getting a kitchen Passover-ready.
As you might imagine, the pain and heavy labor usually falls on women. So does the task of cooking and cleaning up after large dinners for many guests for the seders two nights in a row.
Women and Passover
Why would women want to embrace such a pain-in-the-ass holiday instead of picketing it? Because Passover is all about freedom and empathy, creating a ready-made platform for feminists. The seder (a ritualized dinner that includes lots of story-telling and blessings) focuses on remembering the Jews’ oppression in Egypt and celebrating their subsequent freedom.
Feminists want freedom, and empathy from others so they can understand how women are oppressed and why they are entitled to better.
The seder provides both: it is a celebration of our freedom as a people, but also an expression of empathy for our ancestors’ hardships. Even more significantly it requires empathy for the enslavers: for every plague that God visited on the Egyptians to convince them to free the Jews, seder-goers spill a drop of wine from their glasses to lessen their enjoyment.
Another hook for feminists is that Passover is one of the few holidays that centers around a historical event with a female protagonist. Miriam, Moses’ sister, plays a surprisingly large role in the history of the Jews’ escape from Egypt. A lot of it is elided from the Haggadah, the book that guides celebrants through seders, but it is recorded in other sources.
Miriam’s heroics begin with the birth of Moses. At the time the Jews were living under an edict to execute all Jewish baby boys. Miriam saved her brother by putting him in a basket and sending him down the Nile in the hopes that someone would pick him up and save his life. Her gamble paid off: Pharaoh’s daughter picked him up and raised him in luxury and privilege.
Another example of Miriam’s contributions is her rallying of the fleeing Jewish women with songs and dances, and her intervention at a time when both men and women were starting to think that being slaves was easier than slogging through the desert.
Feminist Passover Customs
Feminists are remaking seders. They have begun a custom of placing a full cup of water on the table for Miriam. It sits alongside the much older Elijah’s cup, filled with wine, which has for generations symbolized the hope that the Messiah will come soon. Miriam’s cup commemorates the well that God created, in honor of Miriam and her good deeds, for the parched Jews wandering through the desert. Attending a third seder by and for women is another popular innovation.
Some women have begun changing the all-male language in the Haggadah to reflect women’s presence and involvement in both the historical event and in the seder itself. For instance, instead of “forefathers,” I say “ancestors.” Others have gone farther, writing entirely new Haggadahs that include female God-language (i.e. referring to God as “she”) and new rituals to commemorate the female slaves’ struggles and to honor the work of modern feminists. Some put an orange on the table as a symbol that Judaism constitutes many parts (the fruit’s segments) that together make a whole, including women.
It may not seem like it, but religion is malleable, though the pace of change can be glacial. Kudos to all the Jewish women working to make Passover and all of Judaism acknowledge women’s place in history and in modern life — as men’s equals.