Spring brings forth many new possibilities. The start of a new season seems to fill the chilly air with promise. Spring for me means the Japanese cherry blossoms have come to bloom. I enjoy these exquisite tiny flowers for the brief time they reveal themselves to the world, as it reminds me of how fleeting such moments of beauty often are.
It’s around this time that I also receive my annual Passover invitation to attend one of my oldest friend’s family Seder. Like the cherry blossoms, this yearly tradition lasts but a few hours. Savouring this tradition is the highlight of my spring awakening.
The Passover tradition honors the Exodus, the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt during the time of Moses. The spring celebration is also used to reflect upon Jewish oppression throughout history. Many families recognize modern day issues of slavery and suffrage during Passover. A series of prayers are said, matzah is shared and wine glasses are held high. These gestures of liberty and rejoice are matched by the physical reminders of the Passover tradition –the items on the seder plate.
Now, I do not claim to be an expert on this tradition, but the items on the Seder plate I have come to know quite well.
Most commonly found on the Seder plate are foods like, parsley, a lamb shank, a roasted egg, sweet and bitter pastes, and sometimes an orange. Each items acts as a symbol or a metaphor for the suffering endured by the Jews who escaped from Egypt.
This is the story behind the orange.
One day a Jewish woman went to Synagogue to say the prayers for her deceased father. Because she was raised orthodox, her family followed the rules that prohibited women from speaking these prayers in their place of worship during this grieving period.
The Rabbi of this synagogue told the woman she had no place there, and she responded with rebellion. “Why can’t my place be in the synagogue?”
“Because you have as much a place here as an orange does on a Seder plate” the Rabbi responded.
This prompted the woman to begin placing an orange on her family’s Seder plate every year from that point forward to remind all at the table that women do, in fact, have a place in the synagogue at all the same times men do.
This is the story my friend’s mum tells every year. Since I was a teenager, I would take great pride in celebrating her choice to put an orange on the Seder plate. Her decision was brave, and hopeful that any barriers of oppression could be broken with a peaceful act of disobedience.
The orange can also symbolize the struggles of LGBT communities in some traditional, more orthodox Jewish communities.
Dr. Susannah Heschel was lecturing at a university in the States when she heard the powerful story of a young woman who asked her Rabbi what room there is for a lesbian in Judaism. The Rabbi responded, “ There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate.”
Jews are prohibited from eating leavened bread during the time of Passover to respect the plight of Jewish slaves who did not have time to leaven their bread before their escape from Egypt. So this comment implied a sacrilegious undertone. It would be disrespectful to put bread on the plate during Passover. Was the Rabbi implying that being a lesbian and practicing Judaism would also be disrespectful?
Dr. Heschel was so moved by this question she wanted to symbolize this story of oppression with a respectful item.
She arrived at the orange, a bright and shiny fruit, segmented and seedy. For her, the orange symbolized the fruitfulness for all Jews when members of the LGBT community are active members of Jewish life. This metaphor to have the courage to stand out amidst great barriers of oppression grew to encompass all people who are marginalized.
Whatever story you choose to live by, the metaphor remains the same. The orange is the symbol of solidarity for all those who chose to be bold, to have the courage to speak out against an injustice. It is the story of welcoming change. Thus it is only fitting we celebrate the courage of the orange while the seasons change.
This spring, I implore you to be bold; to be an orange amongst a crowd of apples. Spit out the seeds of ignorance, of stagnant thinking and share your unique segments with our diverse communities to enjoy in solidarity.