Editorial: The expanding Seder plate

An intersectional Pesach

Behold the tomato: the new world fruit, the staple of Italian cuisine, juicy, red and a member of the nightshade family.

And, because of the often mistreated migrant workers who pick them, some say it should be the latest addition to that growing pile of produce on your Passover seder plate. (And when we say “that growing pile of produce on your seder plate,” we mean, that bushel overrunning your seder plate, overflowing its edges, truly in need of an auxiliary seder plate.)

If you follow the suggestion of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America (a branch of the Israel-based organization that is exactly what it sounds like) by adding a tomato to your Passover shopping list, your tomato will be “a symbol of the farmworker who picked it.” And perhaps it will join the already relatively venerable Miriam’s Cup or some of these other foods that have been suggested over the years:

  • Potato peelings (what Jewish ritual would be complete without some extraneous bit of Holocaust-obsession tacked on?)

  • A fourth piece of matzah (which has variously been used to represent Darfur, Soviet Jewry, and others)

  • More potato (for Ethiopians, obviously)

  • An olive (to symbolize the hope for peace in the Middle East)

  • An orange (in recognition of the historical exclusion of women — its origin, by the way, is not what you think it is)

  • An artichoke (for interfaith families)

  • A plantain (for oppression in Cuba — no word yet on whether it’s for internal Cuban-on-Cuban oppression or the economic oppression of the U.S. trade embargo)

  • And — are you ready for this? — an oyster (for Deepwater Horizon)

And the list grows beyond food: There is also the brick that a Civil War soldier used in place of charoset and the empty picture frame for the Chinese law that prohibits the display of images of the Dalai Lama!

Passover and the seder are unique among Jewish holiday rites. It is by far the most complex Jewish in-home ritual. And it is by far the most widely observed Jewish holiday — not just by Jews, but by non-Jewish members of intermarried families, non-Jewish friends of Jewish families, African American groups who often cosponsor “freedom seders” with Jewish groups and, of course, the (somewhat misguided) efforts of church groups trying to understand what Jesus’ last meal was like.

The power of the seder comes from its accessibility and its universal theme. It is accessible because it is, at heart, a lengthy story-telling session, propped up by a ritualized explanation of everything on the table and accompanied by an insistence that anyone present with questions speak up and ask them. The theme of freedom from oppression is magical in its ability to allow every Jew in attendance to look outward at the oppression of others, while at the same time allowing non-Jewish attendees to look inward and, reflecting on some oppression in their lives or backgrounds, come to a deeper understanding of Jews.

The accessibility and popularity of the seder are the very things that make it look like a logical dumping ground for the ever-expanding hors d’oeuvres tray of contemporary causes. In this season Jewish communities, campus ones in particular, abound in the new migrant worker tomato seders, feminist seders, interfaith seders — even BDS seders! — and so forth.

But that tendency robs the seder of its universal power by particularizing its relevance to modern issues. Every oppression is the same, each one reflected in some aspect of all others. The seder, then, is about our oppression and every oppression. So the addition of one cause du jour or the other is fine, but we must be careful not to let it overshadow any other.

Unfortunately, one pitfall of these well-intentioned additions to the seder, is the potential to reject one of the seder’s most basic tenets: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” How often has someone misinterpreted the unwillingness to place an orange on the plate as misogyny, or accused someone of being uncaring about peace in the Middle East because they don’t want olives on their Passover table? In fact, though it is never the intent of the originators of these novel seder plate items, it happens all too often.

Matzah is not novel. Indeed it is the most basic of the symbolic seder foods. But this year let us all look to Matzah as a symbol of the universal power of Passover. It is “ha lachma anya,” traditionally translated as “the bread of our affliction.” But an equally persuasive translation might be “the bread of our oppression.” This year let us regard it for what it truly is: the bread of all oppressions.

And if you want to add a tomato to your plate, we suppose that’s OK too.

Editorials reflect the opinions of the New Voices Editorial Board.

2 Older Responses to “Editorial: The expanding Seder plate”

  1. David Z
    April 5, 2012 at 3:27 pm #

    I hate to mar an otherwise very nice piece, so let me first say thanks for the eloquent thoughts. Now the criticism.
    I don’t know what “misguided” means, but why are the church groups efforts misguided? They seem perfectly reasonable to me (I just picked up a second box of hand-made circle European matsa for my Born Again co-worker). If misguided just means they’re not Jews celebrating pesakh in all its meanings (both historical and spiritual/character-building), then why are the Africans and other non-Jews not misguided? Is this just some kind of dig at believing Christians? If so, I don’t get it – please explain. Thanks!
    And a khag kasher v’sameakh!

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