A Brief History of Queer Haggadahs

The entire Jewish community can learn so much from these adaptive texts.

The story of how some Jewish communities came to include an orange on the seder plate is a contested one. The short version is that Jewish scholar Susannah Heschel added it as a kosher-for-Passover symbol of gay and lesbian inclusion, although the details of why and how vary between accounts. Like so many elements of the Passover story, the orange has come to symbolize a mythology that goes beyond its original intention. But what most of us can agree on is that it represents inclusion for Jews who have been disenfranchised from their communities, and most specifically, LGBTQ Jews.

In the darkness of a global pandemic, the wisdom of our queer Jewish generations can serve as a guiding light. In her poem “Yom Kippur 1984,” Jewish lesbian poet Adrienne Rich asked, “What is a Jew in solitude? / What would it mean not to feel lonely or afraid / far from your own or those you have called your own?” In the poem, she grapples simultaneously with her need for Jewish connection and her desire for radical independence. She writes as someone who has not been embraced by her community. For LGBTQ people, isolation is that childhood monster under your bed that never left. It is the myth that we experience our pain alone, enforced by the reality of multiple barriers to community supports.

Judaism is a communal practice. Many of us find God, the Source, the divine, in each other when we gather in groups of 10 or more. It is a tactile practice; we kiss our tzitzit, we tear off hunks of bread. Of course, under the threat of COVID-19 transmission, many of our usual practices have been interrupted. Even as synagogues go virtual and individuals re-learn how to pray alone, the pangs of loneliness and isolation may be especially painful this time of year when we would normally be gathering with our families and friends and opening our doors to our neighbors.

For LGBTQ Jews who are isolated in unsafe home environments, our current reality may be especially frightening.

LGBTQ Jews have been practicing resilience through isolation for decades. Like the orange on the seder plate, we have carved out meaningful traditions to address this pain and to forge connection. One of these tools is the rich tradition of haggadahs, the adapted blessings and songs and text that guides us through the Passover seder. Queer haggadahs and seders were born out of necessity when LGBTQ Jews were estranged from their families and disenfranchised from synagogues. These haggadahs serve as models to recognize and combat the severe social isolation that still affects LGBTQ people today. Even as we practice social distancing, Jewish families and communities can learn about our capacity for solidarity and connection from these sources, while honoring voices that have gone undervalued or ignored.

Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side of Manhattan had their first “Stonewall Seder” in June of 1996. The 1997 haggadah is still available online. On the cover, Psalm 118 is quoted: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”

In many ways, the Stonewall Seder Haggadah departs from tradition or expectation. It invokes Allen Ginsberg’s radical homoerotic “Footnote to Howl” during the Hallel. It includes symbols such as the pink triangle, the bundle of sticks, the “exotic” fruit — all symbols of the LGBTQ Jew’s otherness — and also the bricks, challah, and colorful threads that represent our strength, sacredness, and diversity. The AIDS crisis and those whose did not live to see this seder are remembered and invoked throughout the haggadah as well.

There is limited equivalency between the AIDS epidemic and COVID-19, and I am not in the business of drawing comparisons between the two. Many members of our community remember with sharp recollection what it was like to be haunted by a deadly virus, only to be met with the silence or condemnation of elected officials and clergy. The Stonewall Seder Haggadah names that, within parts of the Jewish community, HIV/AIDS has been seen as a divine judgment similar to the 10 plagues. This is a particularly stinging reproach, and a painful part of our collective history.

What is especially remarkable about the Stonewall Seder is how queer Jewish ancestors and elders — and their words — are tightly woven throughout the narrative. Harvey Milk, Robin Shahar, Magnus Hirschfield, Joan Nestle, Debbie Friedman, and Andrew Ramer all make appearances among so many others. The story of the Stonewall Riots is recounted with an undertone of camp. The message is clear: You are not alone. As readers search for touchstones in the ancient story, they are also challenged to make connections with recent political history.

Keshet, a national organization dedicated to LGBTQ inclusion in Jewish life, has many resources on their website including Ma Nishtana, “A Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Ally Haggadah which follows the traditional structure of the Passover Seder but contains readings and discussion questions pertaining to GLBT identity and life.”

Ma Nishtana subverts the usual readings surrounding “Dayenu.” Traditionally, haggadahs use this song as an opportunity to express gratitude and say “it would have been enough” for God to have taken us out of Egypt but not provided each additional blessing in the Passover story. In this haggadah, the traditional approach is acknowledged, but specifies that “we should not forget our own work.” So instead of repeating “it would have been enough,” readers are invited to vow their commitment to tikkun olam (repairing the world) by affirming that small concessions are not enough:

If we were to protect GLBTQA people from violence, but not to include them in our ceremonies,

It would not be enough for us.

If we were to include GLBTQA people in our ceremonies, but not to treat them with honor and respect,

It would not be enough for us.

Ma Nishtana goes further than the Stonewall Seder when it comes to including content and resources specific to transgender Jews, but since I am prompted to ask for more, more I will demand. When trans Jews still face transphobia from within both Jewish and LGBTQ communities, it is not enough for us. That’s the beauty of these queer haggadahs — they are vehicles for connection to others, and they are also kaleidoscopes for inward examination. Is it enough for us, to live without the guarantee of healthcare? Is it enough for us, to live in a state without human rights protections?

Over 10 years after the conception of the Stonewall Seder, JQ International and Hebrew Union College created their own GLBT Passover haggadah. On its fourth page, this haggadah declares, “you don’t have to be Jewish to celebrate freedom,” encouraging readers to invite non-Jewish family, friends, and neighbors to the seder table. In that spirit, I think it is also safe to say that you don’t have to be queer to honor the ideas of community, survival, and liberation — but it helps if you can understand and connect with queer Jewish history.

Similar to the Stonewall Seder, JQ International’s haggadah adapts the 10 plagues to be specific to LGBTQ Jews. Among blood, mockery, guilt, shame, the despair of the AIDS crisis, fear, pain, darkness, and silence, the eighth plague is loneliness. This feels especially fitting, in a world where LGBTQ older adults are twice as likely to live alone as compared to non-LGBTQ older adults. This portion concludes: “In unison we say: We may not have individually felt each plague, but since they afflict our community on a global level, they afflict us as well. Let us not become complacent.” As many of us have learned in the past few weeks, loneliness and isolation take an acrid toll on our lives. This haggadah presents us with a challenge: What is our responsibility to the loneliest among us?

Another gem from JQ International’s haggadah: In describing the contents of the seder plate, the haggadah specifically addresses and unpacks the role of the orange, which is ripe with meaning (I like puns! Sue me!). It contains the seeds of its own rebirth, just as LGBTQ Jews have intentionally conceived of their own belonging. It has the ability to sustain someone through periods of wandering or isolation. In a particularly symbolic addition, the orange is eaten: “Tonight we will say the blessing and taste the sweetness of our orange and use it to add flavor to our Charoset to remind us that we are all a part of the mortar that binds our people.”

As we eat our orange slices this Wednesday evening, what better time to think about how we can plant the seeds of connection.

Header Image design by Grace Yagel.

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