On Tuesday night, I hosted a large Passover seder at my home in Jackson, Mississippi. Out of love for this Jewish dinner party, I may have opened my big mouth—then, inevitability, my door—to a few too many friends.
I realized this seder would be different as I prepared the charoset. Ever since I was old enough to wield a knife, I have been the one to slowly hand chop apples and walnuts for our family seder. It’s cathartic for me to count down the apples, add lemon juice so the apples won’t brown, and stir in the honey with my hands. After about two minutes of chopping, though, I realized my stack of apples was taller than usual; they went straight into the food processor – and this year, convenience trumped tradition, resulting in charoset with more liquid than usual.
Yikes! Why was I compromising my usual charoset consistency? Because I was too excited about sharing Passover, and ended up inviting 30 people for seder. And no, these weren’t just Jews who needed a place to go, I had 13 seder virgins! I chose to invite my non-Jewish friends and neighbors because most of them didn’t grow up in places with a significant Jewish population and had never been invited to help celebrate Passover. In fact, many of my guests don’t know many Jewish people besides, other than myself and other members of the ISJL staff.
We went through the seder with some moments of quiet reflection, and some of laughter and levity. I encouraged guests to read along with the Hebrew transliteration, and my heart swelled when everyone’s voices joined together for “Go Down Moses.” We had a surprisingly successful gefilte fish tasting, sang a song about the afikomen to the tune of “Oklahoma” and answered a lot of questions about matzah.
Was it the most traditional or religious seder? No, not by any means. But I made that clear to my guests and encouraged them to take home the haggadahs to study up for next year. But even with soggier charoset, I’m glad that I was able to provide some of my guests their first Jewish seder experience.
I enjoy having my home filled with friends and food, so it’s understandable why I got so excited about hosting a Passover seder. It’s a tradition that lends itself to bringing people into your house and sharing a meal that’s interactive, educational and delicious. I’m already planning for next year—with a tent outside!—and you are all invited.
When historians write about social or political transformation, they often make a distinction between “change from above” and “change from below.” Change from above comes directly from the leadership—Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal is a good example. Change from below is brought about by the efforts of regular people, whether directly from their actions or as a result of pressures brought to bear on those in power. The Civil Rights Movement is an especially compelling example of this. In researching the Jewish history of Louisville, Kentucky, I found a fascinating instance of “change from below” that literally came from above.
Keneseth Israel was created in 1926 from the merger of Louisville’s two oldest Orthodox congregations, both of which had been established by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. By the mid-20th century, a new generation of members had begun to chafe under the requirements of strict Orthodoxy. After World War II, the younger members of the congregation, especially its women, began to push for mixed-gender seating. In 1950, a group of female members, who normally sat in the synagogue balcony, held “sit-down strikes” in the downstairs men’s section during services. During one of these demonstrations, the police were called to restore order, and some members threatened a court injunction to stop the protests. Keneseth Israel’s Rabbi Benjamin Brilliant supported the traditionalists and refused to continue services while women were sitting in the men’s section.
Finally, the board sought to strike a compromise by allowing women to sit on the main floor of the sanctuary separated from the men by a mechitza, though this solution did not satisfy the protestors. Finally, after Rabbi Brilliant left Keneseth Israel in 1952, the congregation voted to institute mixed seating in the middle section of the sanctuary, with separate sections for men and women at the sides. Over the years, the congregation would continue to struggle with how to balance traditional Judaism with the demands of the modern world. Later, Keneseth Israel affiliated with the Conservative Movement and become fully egalitarian.
It’s quite remarkable that thirteen years before Betty Friedan published of The Feminine Mystique, which helped spark the second wave of American feminism, the women of Keneseth Israel decided to challenge the gender inequality of their congregation in such a direct way. Their effort is a perfect example of how most social change comes from pressure from below, even if it actually comes from the balcony!
Sending wishes for joyful seders and a sweet Pesach, whether you’re celebrating in the South, North, East, or West! Happy Passover, y’all!