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A seat at my seder table

Add these women’s perspectives -- diverse in affiliation, background, and more -- to your discussions on leaving Egypt and feel more like you were there
Seder Swag. (courtesy)
Seder Swag. (courtesy)

I am the oldest child in my family and — with age — I have become more comfortable admitting that I was a pretty competitive sibling. The Passover seder table, in particular, was a forum for showing off how much I knew about the holiday and obnoxiously showing up my younger sisters. My parents encouraged us all to ask questions and to answer as much Passover trivia they could throw at us. I obviously took on that challenge. Along with others like, who could drink the most grape juice? Who finished all their matza? Who could stay awake the longest? It was a perfect platform for my competitive nature and I apologize now for reinforcing the message of bitterness a little too well for my sisters. It is actually quite impressive that they still invite me over for the holiday.

I hope I have since tempered my behavior, but one childhood rule from our family seder still remains integral to my seder participation. My father demanded that every seder participant come to the table with a dvar Torah, a reflection or teaching related to the Passover holiday — and it had to be something new each year. No repeats. As a child, I (obviously) took that assignment pretty seriously. I would bring my school notebook to the table or scan the children’s haggadah for a “new and novel” tidbit to impress my family. I am still grateful for this family tradition, because it ensured that each seder conversation was new and different from year to year — because of my own contributions and the shared contributions of others around the table. It also made the seder experience feel “different from all other nights” — I had to come prepared to contribute to the conversation and elevate it for everyone.

There have been years when I made the time to delve into some Passover learning and came to the seder table laden with highlighted texts and source sheets. There have been other years when I could only manage to cobble together a semi-provocative question relating the Exodus story to a current event. But my “M.O.” of late has been to print out an assortment of online Passover wisdom shared by others and then read them over in time for the second seder (one advantage of having a second chance at seder execution!) and share something that resonated with me.

This Passover will be no different. Except.

Last week, we launched a new venture with SVIVAH called “HerTorah” — a space dedicated to women’s perspectives on Torah under the direction of Aliza Sperling, in partnership with Maharat and the Aviv Foundation. We invited Rachel Sharansky Danziger to share her thoughts on cultural storytelling and let the women in the room examine the methods they use to share their important life stories. Rachel focused on the central storytelling tactic of the haggadah where we are supposed to remember the story of the Exodus as if we ourselves experienced it – in the first person.“Bechol dor vador chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatza mi’Mitzrayim” — In every generation, each person is obligated to relate to the Exodus as if it been their own personal journey. In our planning for HerTorah, we invited the Jewish Women’s Archive to talk about their work preserving and amplifying the stories and perspectives of Jewish women. JWA’s executive director, Judith Rosenbaum, gave a moving talk highlighting how the stories of women are foundational to our Judaism, but how they are often overlooked. It is a powerful reminder that so much of our cultural history is lost when we forget to include the voices of our women. JWA thoughtfully sent along some of their “women’s stories” related to Passover to share at our gathering — and that was the moment it clicked for me.

Aliza Sperling. April 2019. (courtesy)

I decided to pass on my family tradition to the women of SVIVAH. This event was all about preparing for the seder discussion and also telling the stories of women. So I started printing. I started printing seder stories and perspectives told in women’s voices. This is not new or novel — women’s Torah scholarship is something we can thankfully take for granted. But when I focused on that storytelling strategy of “first person experience of the Exodus,” I realized how important it was to bring more women to my seder table. If I wanted to experience the story of leaving Egypt as if I was there myself, I should bring voices to the table that sound similar to mine.

So I collected the voices of women.

And it is really nice that these are all voices of women — not that some of them couldn’t have been written by men, but it is nice to be able to note that these are all women’s voices being invited to contribute to my seder stream of consciousness. There are many different types of readers, but when I read, I try to hear the voice of the writer in my head. Since many of the scholarly writings selected were written by pillars of our local DC Jewish community — as I read, these really are voices I can hear in my head. I have had the privilege to hear many of them speak and teach, so in reading their thoughts about Passover, I really can hear them. I can really feel their presence at my seder table. With the obligation of the seder to have everyone imagining themselves as if they, too, left Egypt, it was notable to surround myself with commentary about that journey in a voice that sounds similar to my own, from voices that I know and respect.

We shared Sixth & I’s, Rabbi Shira Stutman, “Relying on Miracles” and Erica Brown’s “Dayenu: A Jewish Template for Gratitude” and “The Ten-Second Seder.” There was Esther Goldenberg’s “Omer Journey” and Rabbi Sarah Tasman’s “Passover Yoga: Meditation & Creative Expression,” with At the Well, and Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin on “The Deepest Meaning of Hineini.” From the executive track of Maharat, local Alana Suskin shared her thoughts on “Pesach: A Radical Freedom.”

(Courtesy)

Since Rachel Sharansky Danziger presented us with a literary analysis of the haggadah, we wanted to include other literary perspectives on the story of the Exodus. Of course, we wanted more Rachel Danziger, with her “Memories of the Exodus: The First Going Out”, but also the in-depth On Being interview with Dr. Avivah Zornberg, “The Transformation of Pharaoh, Moses, and God.” Some literary creativity with author Ilana Kurshan and her “Exodus Sonnets,” as well as Gail Reimer’s “Passover Poetry: Re-Telling the Story of Our Own Lives” and author Tova Mirvis, with her timely piece for the Jewish Women’s Archive: “Passover in Charleston.” And someone shared this beautifully illustrated Charlotte von Rothschild Haggadah (1842), the only Hebrew manuscript known to have been illuminated by a woman.

We wanted women to find voices that sounded like their own, but also voices that they would be open to hearing. A diversity of women’s perspectives — in affiliation, background, generation, identity — it made the table feel heavy with richness. Rabbi Dr. Erin Leib Smokler shared her Pastoral Torah from Maharat on “Ze Eli V’Anvehu: Pointing to a Personal God.” Women’s oppression through the timely lens of #MeToo was a critical component, through Rabbi Tamara R. Cohen’s piece on “Passover, #MeToo, and a Mirror on the Seder Plate.” We offered the Maharat Pesach Companion and the Hadar Haggadah. Rabbi Avital Hochstein presented thoughts “On Belonging and Otherness.” Addressing feminism head-on were Sharon Weiss-Greenberg and her “Four Questions Every Feminist Should Ask Herself at the Passover Seder” and “What’s in an Orange?” by Jordan Namerow. It was inspiring to see women of all ages and affiliations work their way around the “SVIVAH Seder Swag” table, comparing selections, making recommendations to women they were only first meeting. They were sharing their stories, voices they were familiar with. Perspectives were shared, lenses were broadened, women’s stories were told.

(Courtesy)

Joy Ladin wrote of “Passover: Festival of Binaries” for Keshet. IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous shared “We Are an Exodus People,” alongside Rabbi Sari Laufer’s “The Oft-Misquoted Catchphrase of the Exodus.” Rabbi Jill Hammer’s “On Passover Remembering Our Oppression with Sweetness” brought the Shekhinah into the mix. From Hadar, Rabbi Avi Killip offered “Stories and Redemption,” while Dena Weiss shared “Four Different Questions.” And — because I let my own story be part of the table — I added Mayyim Hayyim’s guide to immersing “In Preparation for Passover,” and “Bridges and Puzzles: Understanding the Haggadah” from Sefaria director and childhood friend, Sara Wolkenfeld. This collection is a thoughtfully random assortment. There are hundreds more women’s voices who should also be invited to the table. As you can see, this is not Torah about women. This is simply women’s perspectives on Torah. I find myself asking every woman I cross — whose voice would you want to invite to the table?

When we were developing the concept of HerTorah, we asked one of SVIVAH’s senior consulting educators if she thought there was educational value in creating a women*-only space for Jewish study. Without missing a beat, she responded, “Without a doubt. There have been many times I’ve taught the same exact curriculum to a room of men, a mixed-gendered room, and a room of women. The input — my curriculum — is exactly the same. The output in each room? Vastly different. Each audience will have a different outcome. Now, one is no more valuable than the other. In fact, it is fitting with the concept of ‘there are 70 different faces of the Torah.’ A room of women will uncover one of those faces. And a full understanding of our texts will be incomplete without it. So is there value? It’s imperative.” In other words, we cannot expect to fully understand our foundational stories without the perspective of women.

(Courtesy)

This HerTorah gathering was a space dedicated to women’s voices and perspectives. It was not crafted with the same intention as a “women’s seder,” but more to affirm that the method in which we tell our stories as women is foundational to our faith tradition. HerTorah was born of the need to reinforce the foundational importance of the perspective of women. It is about creating a space for us to sit together and share our stories, so we can use our collective experience to discover and unearth this version of our faith foundation. The story angle that lets us see ourselves in it more clearly. The story told in voices that sound similar to our own.

So I collected a selection of diverse, multigenerational women’s perspectives on Passover. I pulled out a few chairs and invited these women scholars to join me at my seder table. And I hope that in surrounding myself with the voices of women, I can more clearly envision my own Exodus, the path and the journey I would have taken out of Egypt, as if I had been there myself.

(Courtesy)

*SVIVAH defines a “Jewish woman” as anyone wishing to join a circle of Jewish women.

About the Author
Ariele Mortkowitz is passionate about the ways women interact with their faith and their community and has dedicated herself to the pursuit of fulfilling Jewish spiritual and communal experiences for women. She founded SVIVAH, a venture dedicated to nourishing women’s communal faith experience -- inspiring, supporting, connecting, and celebrating Jewish womanhood. As a volunteer mikvah guide for over 15 years, Ariele saw how ritual could augment an individual’s spiritual journey and create a space for personal connections, leading her to create the Agam Center, an expansion of what a mikvah can be to a community. She earned a Certificate in Spiritual Entrepreneurship through the Clal Glean program and Columbia Business School. She is also a YCT/Maharat/JOFA-certified premarital teacher. Originally from New Jersey, Ariele currently lives in Washington DC with her family.
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