This was my first Pesach away from home. I am a first-year college student and although I love my college and my vibrant Hillel community there, I was looking forward to spending the seders with my own family. And yet, as much as I wanted an idyllic Pesach at home, I knew that it would be impractical, given the amount of class I would miss while traveling. Logistically, it just didn’t make sense, so I stayed on campus. It was clear to me that there was a reason I was supposed to be at college instead of at home. And so, rather than accepting an invitation to someone else’s first night seder, I decided to host and lead my own.
My mother has led the family seder every year I can remember, so a woman at the head of the table is definitely not foreign to me. However, the idea of leading it myself was intimidating. I have never been confident asserting my voice in Jewish ritual (for example, saying Kaddish for my dad always made me nervous). I decided not to let this fear stop me and I reached out to other first-year students who might be uncomfortable going to a large communal seder, not have a smaller seder to go, or just not seek one out in the first place.
I expected about fifteen students, but even more showed up. The diversity of the group was wonderful, ranging from hopeful converts to unaffiliated Jews who had never before experienced a seder to Orthodox students who had never missed one in their lives. Consequently, the discussions during Maggid were rich with viewpoints informed by various religious ideologies and academic backgrounds.
In planning the seder, one of my priorities was to make a safe space where all of the attendees could feel comfortable. Before beginning, I made it clear that everyone was welcome at this seder, and explained the orange on the seder plate to illustrate my point. To make the seder interactive and inclusive, we took turns reading paragraphs from the Haggadah during Maggid. Only a few people were familiar with Hebrew or Aramaic so we conducted most of the seder in English. We sang rousing renditions of Chad Gadya, Echad Mi Yodeia, and Adir Hu.
Since I’m known for my feminist tendencies, nobody was surprised that I included Miriam’s Cup and discussed the strong women who are the backbone of the Exodus story. People also appreciated that I used (and encouraged others to use) gender-neutral language. We had a lot of really good conversations about the Four Sons: do we gain anything from them being male, or do they actually reflect children of any gender? How do we rationalize pushing away the Wicked Child from the Jewish community? What are the feminist implications of the Haggadah’s use for the feminine you in “you should say [to the Simple Child]?”
Although I definitely missed my mother’s charoset and all the customs we have at home, I really enjoyed leading this seder. I am so happy I was able to provide and facilitate a Pesach experience for all those people. As much preparation and stress as it took to plan, I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.
I could never have anticipated the impact that reading Perek Daled (chapter four) of Megillat Esther would have on my life. In 2008, I was a student at Cambridge University, and what had started as a shyly mooted idea to organise a women’s megillah reading had been taken up enthusiastically. After some reluctance, our student chaplain acquiesced, and even beneath the boys’ standard jokes was an undeniable note of respect.
With last-minute timing typical of students, we split up the ten chapters, found recordings to learn from, and learnt our parts. I don’t think I realised at the time that learning leyn Megillat Esther would transform my understanding of the book, and deepen my relationship with Judaism.
Applying notes to the text has been a key part of this experience – the leyning trop (cantillation) really does mirror the mood and pace of the story. I had always loved the bits of Megillat Esther which were sung to the Eicha (Lamentations) tune: remembering the exile of Mordechai’s family from Jerusalem, and as Esther prepares to approach the King uninvited, and face the same fate as Vashti. Until I learnt to read them myself, I hadn’t appreciated the depths of the words beneath them.
Each time I’ve leyned the megillah since then, and there have been five occasions (and counting!), I have felt my bond grow with these ancient, beloved words. Esther’s story has come alive in new and astounding – and sometimes disturbing – ways. I’ve discovered new characters I never realised were there (they never mentioned Hatach or Hegai in cheder [Jewish elementary school]) and I’ve noticed nuances in the narrative. The words and phrases and their tunes have stayed with me, popping up at surprising times. They inform my study of other parts of the Tanakh, enabling
new cross-readings and echoes between stories. (And I felt rather smug on one occasion when a rabbi quoted a phrase from “my perek,” and I noticed that he missed out a word!)
Reading Megillat Esther has been an enriching experience in so many other ways. In the community where I live now, it has brought together a wonderful group of like-minded friends with a variety of ages and backgrounds – some of whom I may never have spoken to otherwise. While some are deeply involved in our community, others feel alienated by Judaism, and yet reading the megillah has been a source of connection and meaning for them. To anybody who says that women’s megillah readings are a “slippery slope” away from “authentic Judaism,” I would encourage them to consider the women whom it has inspired to greater levels of Jewish knowledge, spirituality, and engagement. In addition to my feelings of connection with the text, my Hebrew skills have improved significantly, and I am finally mastering the difference between pronouncing a heh and a chet, something, embarrassingly, that I never properly achieved in cheder or even in seminary.
The readings themselves have always been memorable, both for their good decorum and clarity of reading – and simply for being fun occasions. It is incredibly refreshing to be a part of a reading where you can hear every word, when each leyner brings a unique voice to her section, and when you can feel the hours of work, effort, and worry that has gone into preparing each chapter. And we have fun! Each year, our group has picked a dressing up theme, from wigs and wings to silly hats. We also give tzedakah as a group each year, picking both a local cause and one further away.
Reading megillah has changed and enriched my Jewish life. I hope that both women who choose to leyn and those who don’t have only respect for one another. Ultimately, I see participation in reading the megillah as taking one of the many opportunities that life throws at us to bless God – to do something positive, active and public that connects us with our spiritual heritage. It makes me proud to know that I have been part of the growing movement of women’s megillah readings, and that the young girls – and boys – in our community will grow up seeing it as a normal and beautiful part of the Jewish year.
Are you organizing a megillah reading this year? Add it to JOFA’s international directory.
As an Orthodox Jew, feminist activist, and first-year college student, I’ve got a pretty full schedule to balance. I’ve previously written about how being a feminist has influenced my perspective on being an undergrad, but I have yet to explore how being Orthodox impacts both my feminism and collegiate career.
Being a feminist in a patriarchal society is no simple mater. However, so far, I’ve found college to be a pretty conducive place for feminism and other social equality movements. There’s a sizable feminist community at Harvard, every member of which is absolutely fabulous and truly dedicated to making the world a better place for women and men alike. Numerous gender-related events occur every week, from screenings of documentaries like 12th and Delaware to speeches by New York Times columnist Gail Collins. All of the upperclass feminists I’ve met have strongly encouraged me and other first-years to get involved in activist work; my first semester of college hasn’t even ended, and I’m already on the board of an on-campus feminist organization and write for the college’s feminist magazine. Even in groups that are not specifically gendered or activist-oriented, I have found and fostered several feminist-friendly spaces.
Not everybody I meet on campus is as involved in gender issues as I am. Although I have encountered some insensitivity or misunderstanding when I’ve espoused feminist ideals or used the word feminist, the typical reaction is a few respectful questions about what exactly feminism is. Consequently, I’ve had some really interesting, eye-opening conversations with a varied group of people about gender issues. Continue reading