I grew up going to a conservative egalitarian synagogue in Toronto on the High Holidays and occasionally on Shabbat. Women have equal participation to men in the services and I was able to have my Bat Mitzvah reading from the Torah on the bimah. Our prayers included the forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob while also including the foremothers, Sarah, Rachel and Leah. I loved being able to sit in-between my mother and father, all of us active participants. Naturally, because this was my religious Jewish experience growing up, I thought it was the norm for most Jewish people.
It wasn’t until I visited my family in South Africa in Grade 10, that I realized conservative egalitarianism wasn’t the norm, and it was difficult for me to understand why. Orthodox services are the most common there, and for the first time I was separated from my brother and father. My mother, sister, and I sat in a different section of the room, further away from the bimah. From then on, the more I discovered about Judaism, the more I became aware of the strong patriarchal structure fundamental to the religion.
By the time I was 17, I started to view the Haggadah my family used in a new light. While my family is not religious, we read a traditional Haggadah for Passover. God is always referred to as Him, the four children are all boys, and there is never any mention of the female characters of the Exodus story. With each successive year, I became increasingly frustrated by it.
When I discovered that Miriam’s cup was not originally a part of the Seder, like Elijah’s cup, I did not understand why. Even more so, why she’s never mentioned in the Haggadah, being one of the most important figures in the story.
These discoveries angered me because I saw my religion erase and devalue women from our stories and history. During this time in my life, I felt strongly disconnected from Judaism.
It wasn’t until undergrad, when I interned at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, that a different path in Judaism presented itself.
Towards the end of my internship, I signed up to volunteer for a few film screenings. During the last screening I attended, like all the times before, I closed the door as the final attendees took their seats, not fully cognizant of what I was about to witness. The lights dimmed and the documentary Esther Broner: A Weave of Women began to play.
The film is about feminist and academic E.M Broner, who created The Women’s Seder in 1976 during Second Wave Feminism. Tired of women’s absence in Judaism’s practices, she felt the Seder personified women’s oppression within the religion. And for a holiday that discusses Jewish liberation, the hypocrisy was too blatant to ignore.
Broner wrote The Women’s Haggadah with Nomi Nimrod, redefining the Seder to focus on the female narrative. As Broner stated, “we wanted to take a major Jewish holiday, to continue interpreting it, to insert ourselves into it, to make ourselves historic.” Her work highlighted the direct correlation between female oppression in modern day society to the Jewish oppression seen in the story of Passover.
Broner’s new Seder celebrated a third night of Passover; a women’s only celebration. She exclusively invited women to discuss the oppression experienced in Jewish life and society as a whole. The 10 plagues became the plagues of inequality. Songs, like Dayenu, were completely rewritten to discuss how different Judaism would have been if women’s roles in history had been written and sung.
I couldn’t believe I was only hearing about Broner at 19. I felt robbed of a Jewish figure I felt an immediate connection to. A woman whose work made me feel seen.
The central female figures in the story like Shifra, Puah, Yocheved, and Miriam are hardly given a voice, yet their defiance and strong will needed to be celebrated and recognized—without them Moses would not have survived. Therefore, Broner and Nimrod created their own rituals to honour the strength of women at the Seder table.
The four children become the four daughters, with the wise child becoming the chachama, meaning both “wise woman” and “midwife.” The word midwife evokes the story of the midwives Shifra and Puah who disobeyed the king of Egypt by not killing the male firstborns of the Hebrews. By defying his orders, it allowed the Hebrew population to grow.
Another woman that is commemorated is Moses’s mother, Yocheved. She hides her son for three months and builds him a tevah—a protective ark—to float him on the Nile. Yocheved embodies the protective and nurturing maternal perspective, which is omitted from the Seder rituals. However, her role in the story personifies female strength, which saves the saviour of the Jewish people.
The most important female figure in the story of Exodus is the prophet Miriam. Miriam’s cup has become a commonplace ritual not only present in women-led Seders, but also in some traditional Seders. Her cup stands beside Elijah’s cup, as Miriam’s importance to the Israelites cannot be ignored.
The cup represents Miriam’s well, which is said to contain healing and sustaining waters. It followed Miriam for the 40 years of wandering in the desert and was credited to her merit as an individual.
It was these types of realizations about Judaism that pushed me to delve deeper into making sure women have a seat at the table.
Another ritual that is included is the placement of an orange on the Seder plate. Susannah Heschel started this tradition as a sign of solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community. While not fully known, the story goes that Heschel added the orange to the Seder plate after a man shouted to her that a woman belongs on the bimah as much as an orange on a Seder plate. To many people the orange now stands for the inclusion of all who have been marginalized. While for the LGBTQ+ community, it is also extended to all Jewish women, whose stories and voices were written out of the Haggadah.
However, Broner and Nimrod didn’t just want women to be represented in the ritual parts of the Seder. They wanted women to be able to lead their own rituals.
Often, women are responsible for preparing and planning the Passover meal, and readying the home for the holiday, which takes days. Yet their role in the traditional Seder is marginal. The Jewish feminist movement found this subservience problematic, especially on a holiday that discusses Jewish liberation.
The Women’s Seder allowed women to lead the order of events and create an evening that was informed entirely by them. They didn’t just cook the meal, they led the meal. The female biblical figures weren’t silenced, they were voiced. When the gathering first took place in Broner’s home, it was a night unlike all others, in order to become a night like all the rest.
Broner managed to achieve an extremely difficult task in Judaism, allowing the religion to thrive through a feminist lens and a new female-centric practice. Because of her, I saw myself in Judaism again.
Figures like Broner must be taught in Jewish schools. I always think about how much earlier my feminist Jewish education should have started. In my early teens, and each year after, I became increasingly aware of how my voice was not centralized or equal. Only through my own actions and education have I managed to change this.
My family now includes an orange on the Seder plate (a tradition started a couple years ago) and I bring up elements of The Women’s Haggadah in our yearly Passover tradition.
As Broner’s rendition of Dayenu states, “If women had written the Haggadah and brought our mothers forth, Dayenu.”
For that I sincerely thank Broner and Nimrod for bringing my foremothers forth and allowing me to see how I can fully participate in Judaism as an equal and valued member of the community. Broner saved my relationship with Judaism. And with this feminist text, the next generation in my family shall know it and for that I say, Dayenu.
Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.
Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Toronto Star. She previously was a reporter for Metroland Media where she covered education in Peel Region. Her other work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.