Orange at the seder plate

March 3, 2014

Favourite Rabbi offered a how to lead a seder class yesterday, I being someone who honestly has never been in charge of a seder and who is scared of the experience I figured it was good for me… besides it was being taught by Favourite Rabbi although honestly if Senior Rabbi offered the class I probably would have gone to it as well. He brought out about five million haggadot. How Rabbi B has so many, I don’t know. I asked if there were any that he had which was more LGBT inclusive for example the orange. I was asked why I put the orange on my seder plate and I passed on the LGBT reason I was then told I was wrong by Favourite Rabbi and Female Student. Never tell me I am wrong.

The following is a somewhat adapted version of the email I sent to Favourite Rabbi yesterday.

The origin of this symbol, as with all other symbols, is shrouded in a mixture of myth and veracity. The version which circulates most widely is that the use of the orange began when Susannah Heschel, a leading feminist and daughter of the famous rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, was lecturing at a shul in Miami. An elderly male rabbi then stood and protested: “a woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on the seder plate.” In response, the orange began to be included in the seder plate as a defiant symbol of the prominent role women must have in Judaism.

The real story is that in 1984, a group of 8 young feminists at Oberlin College in the US decided to create “A Women’s Haggadah” and celebrate the seder together. Their haggadah included a story written by Shifra Lilith Freewoman about a young Jewish lesbian who is told by her Chasidic rebbe that “there is as much place for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for chometz at the Seder table,” based on a newspaper article about the reaction of a hassidic rebbe to lesbianism. Their idea for adding the story was to address homophobia within Judaism and create a space for LGBT Jews.

When soon afterwards Sussanah Heschel came to Oberlin, these women discussed their haggadah with her. Heschel misunderstood and thought that they were actually putting bread crumbs in their seder plate. At the next Passover, however, Heschel placed an orange at her seder table. She felt that using actual bread crumbs, chometz forbidden during Pesach, incorrectly suggested that being lesbian was transgressive and violated Judaism. For her, placing an orange suggested the “fruitfulness for all Jews” when lesbians, gays, and all others usually excluded from the community, become “contributing and active members of Jewish life.” An orange segment was also given to each of the participant at the table, who in turn had to spit out the seeds – a symbol of repudiating the homophobia that poisons so many of us.

From http://www.npls.org.uk/Sermons/New/First-day-Pesach-5772.html

The newspaper article that they are referring to (regarding the ultra-orthodox and lesbianism) occurs several times between the 1950s and 1960s and even continues today, bread is the most common and was a phrase used by Reform and Orthodox alike. (I, as a Jew that observes kashrut, would have said like pork in a kosher kitchen.) The author of the story left Orthodoxy around 1975, she was 14.

You might wonder why was this being discussed by Orthodox rabbis as early as the 1950s and 60s?

As you might or might not know, when the concentration camps were liberated, not all were freed. Gay men (pink triangles) and lesbian women (usually black triangles) were simply transferred from the death camps to another prison in Germany. They were then often serving another 20 to even 30 years for simply the crime of being gay and really it should have been life in prison but they were freed in the late 1960s. Of course some were Jewish and of course Jews being Jews (especially after the horrors of WWII) their families tried to find them and later once free they tried to find their families. Orthodox rabbis would discourage families from trying to learn more once they found out the women were black triangles (less of a problem with the pink triangles which still were ignored but seemed as far as I know to be not as bad), but said LGBT were such a mark/blemish, that they had no place in Judaism and to stop trying to find their imprisoned daughters. When the LGBT people were freed they were shunned by their families (assuming they could find them!) because they gave into their desires. So many LGBT Jews have been lost to Judaism because of what these rabbis said, cut off from their people. One of the less desirable things in Judaism. And it’s *still* going on.

When people read the story they started doing the orange to say there was always room at the seder for gay people. Later this expanded to include every marginalized person, including the disabled.

Judaism really doesn’t have much of a specific place for lesbians or are mentioned in any of the holy texts of our tradition. It’s not in the Torah at all, although some interpret the story of Ruth (and her relationship to Naomi) to be… ahem…! I do not believe the Talmud says anything, but I could be wrong. Gay men of course if they act (commit sodomy) are to be stoned otherwise they are to marry a woman. (Fun Fact, one of the translations of Saris is homosexual.) And of course there are places for most of the trans or intersexed people as they are mentioned specifically in the Talmud.

As a LGBT Jew, I constantly wonder what I did to HaShem to be cursed with a Jewish male brain inside a female Gentile body. Being born a Gentile is bad enough, but he had to make me transgender and gay-identified?

I am still haunted of course by what could have been if I had not been assumed to be a lesbian growing up. If I had just been cisgender, no one would have objected. I would have married Favourite Jewish Boyfriend, I would be living a frum-ish life with lots of little Jewish babies although it would have been hard to find appropriately modest clothing with the 34DDDD boobs attached to me. Instead I get a partner who is repulsed by me because he is straight. And gay men are repulsed by me. And I have no hope of having a normal Jewish life and no chance that someone will even bother to say Kaddish for me when I die. I just want a guy to love me and hopefully want more kids so I can build a Jewish life with him and raise my kids to be truly awesome Jews. Instead it is rejection and rejection. The best I could do at this point is to try to become a teacher, for our tradition teaches that a teacher is in many ways more important than the parents. If your teacher and your father have heavy burdens, you are supposed to help your teacher first. Maybe a student will say kaddish. Maybe a student will name their kid after me.

The only person who loves me and has not rejected me is HaShem, even when I was rejecting him because I listened to rabbis who were so caught up in saying LGBT people make bad Jews that I sulked alone and withdrew, sneaking Jewish books and shows, and then crying because of the rejection. Now I just cry because I suck as a Jew, but not for the reason other rabbis have said I was going to suck.

And that is why I put the orange on my plate, HaShem made it clear that I was loved despite everything and that I belonged at His table even when no one else wanted me at theirs.


How did you find the RIGHT conversion process?

October 25, 2012

Question from a reader : How did you find the RIGHT conversion process?

Now this is from a friend who asked me via Facebook.  She’s half Jewish (I’m assuming through her father since her mother would make her fully Jewish but she did not specify.)

To go through my entire conversion story would take just sort of forever although most of it has been published in Choosing to be Chosen.  I published under my Hebrew name, Mordechai Yisrael.  For hardcore information on how to convert to Judaism, I am going to have to have you stay tuned for the book I am in the process of writing which is going to go through the entire process more in depth and talk about everything.

However, to answer the question how I found the right conversion process, you have to understand a few things about conversion and who is and is not considered a Jew.  If one’s father is Jewish and one grows up identifying as a Jew, several movements would consider that person Jewish.  Reform and Reconstructionist consider you fully Jewish.  Humanistic consider you Jewish (I know, a lot of people don’t consider them Jewish, but hey I do).  Renewal apparently depends on the congregation as I don’t think the movement has officially made a decision but I know patrilineal Jews that are considered Jewish in Renewal.  The Conservative movement and the Orthodox movements would not consider this person Jewish because Judaism is traditionally passed down through the mother, thus they would require a conversion even though the person already identifies as Jewish.

Now let’s talk conversion itself.

Until recently I only knew of one way to convert and that is what is considered the more traditional route.  Circumcision (if male), beit din (of three “learned” Jews), and mikvah.

In the second process, which I learned from Webyeshiva in a shiurim called “Hilchot Geirut: The Laws of Conversion.”  In the second process, a beit din is not needed so as long as the person lives as a Jew among other Jews. If a person does that, they are considered Jewish.  Of course the person is not issued converting paperwork, but they would be considered Jewish.  By that definition, I was Jewish long before I went before the beit din.  Heck by that definition, I was born Jewish!

Honestly I am not sure there are enough options for me to be able to say “Well this process is right for me or this is wrong for me.”  What I knew is that I wanted to be considered Jewish and there is only considered one way to do it as far as most Jews are concerned.  Very few people accept the conversion without a beit din.  This by the way is called “self-conversion.”

Self-conversion is fine in certain situations such as if you are only doing it for yourself.  However, as one of my beit din members said when he handed out our certificate of completion for Introduction to Judaism, “Nothing in this religion happens without a certificate.”  And that is very true.  Having your “papers” (or evidence of your parents’ papers) can be very important for joining a synagogue, making aliyah, getting married, or really having almost any life cycle event.  As a Jew-by-Choice, my only paperwork identifying me as a Jew is my certificate of conversion.  Jews who “self-convert” don’t generally get issued conversion papers.  🙂  In addition, since there is no evidence that a conversion took place, it can be hard to prove the person did what was asked of them and that they really are Jews rather than Noahides or even gentiles who are pretending to be Jewish!  I wanted my paperwork for the purposes of moving to Israel (just in case) or marrying a Jew (just in case).  I also figured since I was studying for conversion for so long that I deserved my paperwork.

One can make the argument that I was living as a Jew among Jews and thus self-converted years ago.  However, I hated being called a Jew before I was “official.”  I felt it was a lie since I wasn’t done to my minimum standards and I did not have the rights of a Jew.  To quote a favourite movie of mine (1776), it “is like calling an ox a bull. He’s thankful for the honor, but he’d much rather have restored what’s rightfully his. ”

So now that we have discussed the processes, lets talk movements/denominations.   There are six branches of Judaism, but for the sake of everything let’s just concentrate on the four main movements – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist.  Actually since Reconstructionist has similar standards to Reform (ironic since Reconstructionists are a split from Conservative, NOT Reform), let’s just throw it out.  Pretty much anything I say about Reform will apply to Reconstructionist (although I have had better experiences with Reform).  Orthodox only recognise Orthodox conversions.  Conservative recognise Orthodox, Conservative and most Reform conversions.  Reform recognises all.

I have experience being rejected by all the main movements plus Reconstructionist plus post-denominational.  Post-denominational is not much better than a self-conversion.  The conversion is easy to question.  A post-denominational rabbi sat on my beit din though.

Personally, I originally wanted to go Conservative.  I am fairly traditional.  I think the mitzvot should be followed to the best of one’s ability.  I keep kosher.  I do my best to keep shomer shabbat when I can although one of my shuls makes it almost impossible at least every two weeks.  The Conservative movement, however, is not friendly to transsexuals.  A Conservative rabbi is who single handedly forced me away from Judaism for many many years and who drove me to attempt suicide… twice.  I was not even out as transgender at the time and was living as a woman although a butch one.  Sorry I was a tomboy!  If the Conservative movement hated me, the Orthodox were really going to hate me.

Then there is Reform.  Reform has a lot of things going for it.  It’s a very large movement.  It’s LGBT friendly.  Unfortunately, a lot of Orthodox consider Reform Jews barely Jewish since Reform does not believe mitzvot are binding.  Plus there is the whole issue of who Reform defines as a Jew with patrilineal descent and such.  Their converts are not considered Jewish by Orthodox standards, although I have had Orthodox Jews independently tell me they would make an exception for me since I am traditional at heart (tzitzit wearing etc).

As my friend Amber said once “The Orthodox do what G-d told them to do, Conservative do what they want, and Reform do nothing at all.”   I’ve had several Reform Jews (including a Reform Rabbi who I was talking to before my conversion) tell me that I am really a Conservative Jew.

So when push comes to shove, the fact I am LGBT friendly pretty much puts me on the border of Reform/Conservative (although most of my practices are closer to Conservative/Orthodox, although I HATE covering my head).  I dealt with SEVEN different rabbis before I could find one who was willing to work with me.  He happened to be Reform.  I did not care so as long as I ended up with paperwork identifying me as a Jew in the event I needed that paperwork.  I already was Jewish as far as I was concerned.  A Jew is a Jew no matter your flavour. On the scale of Reform practices, the synagogue is Reform leaning towards Traditional.  That effectively means they are on the border of Reform/Conservative, which works for me although I am more observant.

When I went before the beit din, one of my final statements discussed what I learned in webyeshiva about conversion without a beit din.  As I told them in my final sentence after that, “It really does not matter how you rule because very little is going to change.  I’m still going to live as a Jew because I AM Jewish.”  Less than a minute later, everyone ruled in my favour.

So to summarize.  I converted because I needed to convert.  I converted in the traditional way with a beit din because I was worried about my paperwork and knew self-conversion was not realistic.  I converted Reform because a rabbi was willing to convert me and I was on the border of Reform/Conservative anyway.  If I was half-Jewish (aka a patrilineal Jew) and had paperwork from Reform identifying me as a Jew or could GET identity paperwork, I would have been highly unlikely to convert unless I had to do so for the purposes of marrying an Orthodox person.