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.


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.