If you have no idea what I’m talking about (join the club), I am referencing the apparently apocryphal tale of an orthodox man who once denounced feminism by saying, “a woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on a Seder plate.”
In response, women have been putting oranges on Seder plates for more than three decades. As it turns out, the story is a little different than what I had originally been told. Dr. Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, was speaking at Oberlin College in the 1980s when she came across a haggadah written by university students. In it was a story about a young girl who asks a Rebbe what room there is in Judaism for a lesbian. The Rebbe shouts the girl down, saying, “There is as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate.”
For obvious reasons, Heschel wasn’t about to put a crust of bread on her Seder plate. But she did decide to add something to her table that would symbolize Judaism’s inclusiveness.
She chose an orange. I’m not sure why. Maybe she knew she couldn’t protect her Passover guests from constipation, so at least she hoped to stave off scurvy.
Recently I’ve come across Seder plates that include a built-in spot for oranges. I’m avoiding buying one like the ten plagues. It’s not that I don’t like the orange-on-the-Seder-plate thing–I put oranges on my own Seder plates. It’s that I don’t want to normalize this incongruous item.
I like the way the orange bobs around the plate like an oversized roulette ball, clearly not fitting in with the shank bone and the charoset, adding a sense of danger to dinner. Is it going to roll off? Will it leave a streak of horseradish across the table?
Because the orange has come to symbolize all those who are marginalized–the LGBTQ community, women, minorities, immigrants and refugees–I appreciate how uncomfortable the orange looks on the plate. It’s meant to stand out. To discomfit.
We are no longer slaves in the land of Egypt, but not all of us are free. We are not free of sexism, of racism of homophobia. We are not free of prejudice or hatred. The addition of this bold fruit, wobbling between the symbols of hardships and hard-won freedoms, reminds us that our story of redemption is not over.
I know some people who refuse to recite birkat hamazon, the grace after the meal, because there are still those who are hungry in our society today. It’s a calculated decision, making everyone around them take notice of their loud silence.
Similarly, the orange should, in my opinion, remain a misfit on the Seder plate. It rolls and roils and reminds us of the work that is left to do. The only requirements of Passover are that we eat a bit of matzah and tell the story of the Exodus. (For real. Nobody is allowed to make you eat gefilte fish, and you can cut this article out and show it to your aunt if she tries.)
But at the end of the Exodus story, Moses doesn’t make it to the Promised Land with the rest of the Jews. He’s never truly escaped from mitzrayim, from the narrow place of hardship. As we watch the orange disrupt the neatly laid-out Seder plate, we should remember that we, too, have yet to escape.