New York — Naomi Reiss sat with her daughter, sister and grandmother, celebrating the Passover holiday with a "seder" meal as Jews have done worldwide for generations.
But this night was different. On this night, the story of the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt focused not on Moses, but on his sister Miriam. On this night, God was described not as "He" but as "She."
And on this night, prayers were recited not by fathers and grandfathers in a dining room, but by 500 women in a New York restaurant.
"I look forward to having everything in women's voices, once a year," said Reiss, who was attending a women's seder for the third year in a row.
Reiss is one of thousands for whom women's seders have become an annual Passover tradition. The event in which she took part was sponsored by Ma'yan, a Manhattan-based feminist organization.
Seders are part of Passover, a Jewish observance that begins Saturday evening.
As women's seders grow in popularity, they are becoming increasingly mainstream, sponsored by groups ranging from Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson, Tex., to the National Council of Jewish Women in Indianapolis, to the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C.
"Something about this has touched a nerve with Jewish women," said Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, who has organized the Indianapolis event for 10 years. "This is about filling in the blank spaces."
The name sounds familiar
Most of these seders take pains to honor women from the Book of Exodus whose names have been lost in popular retellings of the Passover story. There are Shifra and Puah, the midwives who refused to murder Jewish newborn boys as the Pharoah ordered; and Miriam, who placed her baby brother Moses in a basket in the Nile for the Pharoah's daughter to find.
"It's a revelation to all of us to hear the women of the Bible mentioned," said Gerry Raker, a grandmother of nine who attended the Ma'yan seder with a group of older women.
Women's seders also celebrate Miriam's leadership as a grown woman. The Bible describes how, after the Jews crossed the Red Sea, the "prophetess" Miriam raised her "timbrel," or tambourine, and led the women in song and dance to celebrate their freedom.
Many women's seders erupt in dancing to the tune of "Miriam's Song," a folksy, upbeat piece composed in 1988 by Debbie Friedman, who leads the Ma'yan seders.
Traditional seders include a cup of wine on the table for the Prophet Elijah; women's seders add a cup of water in honor of Miriam.
Ancient rabbinic writings associate Miriam with a well of water that followed the Jews as they wandered in the desert. Miriam's cup is filled communally, with each person at the table adding a drop from her own glass.
Women's seders have also added an orange to the symbolic food on the seder plate, which traditionally includes horseradish to represent the bitterness of slavery, and parsley to represent new life, hope and the spring season.
The orange refers to an anecdote from the era before women were allowed to become rabbis. According to the story, a male rabbi once said: "A woman belongs on the bimah (the lectern at the front of a synagogue) like an orange belongs on the seder plate."
Creating new rituals
Women's seders began in the 1970s, spurred in part by the publication in Ms. Magazine of a feminist version of the Haggadah, the text of Passover prayers and stories. Ma'yan also publishes a feminist Haggadah that has sold 40,000 copies.
"On this night, we gather together to prepare for Passover outside of our kitchens in a way our foremothers could never have imagined," the Ma'yan Haggadah reads. "What do we cleanse ourselves of tonight? The exhaustion of cleaning and cooking. The echo of exclusionary language. The silencing of women's stories."
"We're celebrating the fact that we're living in a time where, when we want to be in the kitchen, we can," said Tamara Cohen, Ma'yan program director. "When we want to be working, we can. And when we want to speak up around the table and share our insights, we can.
"That hasn't been true for most of Jewish history. Women didn't have access to the language of the texts because in the past they weren't taught Hebrew."
Rabbi Burt Visotzky, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said that from a religious point of view, it's perfectly kosher to create new Passover rituals.
"If you go around America or Israel or Russia, you'll see a lot of common elements in Passover celebrations, but also a lot of unique ones," he said. "Women's seders are joining a long chain of tradition in refocusing, retelling, bringing up previously unexplored aspects of traditions, or recovering aspects that had fallen by the wayside."
Despite the excitement of creating new rituals and reinterpreting old stories, participants in women's seders say it's the emotional aspect that keeps them coming back.
"There are times when we start to do certain songs and the hair on the back of my neck rises because it's just so moving," said Elizabeth Stein, who helped organize a women's seder in Richardson, Tex. "We get up and dance at various points and have tambourines on the table. It just feels good to be women together and to be empowered."