Students from a variety of religious and political backgrounds, sexual orientations and gender identities gathered Thursday evening at the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life for a progressive celebration of Passover. Columbia/Barnard Hillel’s Queer Feminist Seder, a modern take on the traditional Passover meal at which the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt is remembered and retold, gave students the opportunity to examine the issues of oppression and liberation from a new perspective. While the standard Haggadah, the book which contains the order of the Passover seder and tells the story of slavery and liberation stresses a patriarchal world-view, the Queer Feminist Seder reconstructed this tradition and used the themes of the holiday to question societal gender roles and heteronormativity.
Traditional liturgy was challenged while remaining true to the meaning and spirit of the holiday. Students introduced themselves at the beginning of the event by telling their matriarchal lineage. Instead of reading the traditional “four questions” of the Passover seder, participants asked questions particularly relevant to the LGBTQ community. The “four sons” mentioned in the Haggadah were replaced with the “four adults,” reversing the traditional structure of children having only questions and adults only answers.
The traditional seder plate in the center of the room included a symbol that is quickly becoming the norm at progressive seders: an orange, signifying diversity and equality. The Jewish feminist scholar Susannah Heschel introduced this element in the 1980s as a more acceptable alternative to the suggestion of including a crust of bread on the seder plate in solidarity with lesbians who felt excluded from Judaism. Several legends circulate about this tradition, such as the often-quoted urban legend that a rabbi once declared that a woman belongs on the bimah as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate. As students at Thursday’s seder ate orange segments, the seeds that they spit out symbolized their repudiation of homophobia and sexism.
“To free ourselves from constraints and definitions that are enforced on us by social and political institutions is the essence of feminism,” noted Chanel Dubofsky, coordinator of social justice programming at Columbia/Barnard Hillel and an organizer of the event. “Freedom is scary; the Jewish people understood that perhaps even before they began wandering into the desert.” Dubofsky worked with D’ror Chankin-Gould, Senior Junior Campus Service Corps fellow and editor-in-chief of the Hillel LGBTQ Resource Guide, in putting together the seder.
“Passover is about liberation from oppression,” said Chankin-Gould. “It’s about believing, against all odds, that the powerless can find power and that the hopeless can find hope. So today we have a Queer seder, because reclaiming the word with power and pride is our verbalized belief in liberation. And that, above all else, is what Passover asks us to do: believe in freedom.”
Students saw the seder as an opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge all of their identities, including Judaism. “Having a place for people to fully celebrate themselves, their political ideals, sexual orientations, and full lineage, and simultaneously engage with ritual and tradition, is vital to creating a welcoming and inclusive Jewish community,” said Alana Krivo-Kaufman, Communications Director of Gayava, Hillel’s group for LGBTQ students and allies. “I hope that Gayava can work off of this event to build more accesible spaces like this in the future.”