When I was a teenager in 1969, my father founded a synagogue and served as its first president. During his administration, back in those turbulent late 60s and early 70s, women in the synagogue – at least in the Conservative branch of Judaism – were pushing for more recognition. In fact, the first woman to become a rabbi in a Conservative synagogue was ordained in 1972 in a private ceremony. But even before that, women were striving to be recognized as part of the Minyan, the quorum of 10 people – usually men, up until that time – needed to hold religious services. And women were winning that right as well as the right to stand at the bema (pulpit) and read from the Torah publicly. In other words, to take their place as full participants in the religious life of their faith community, rather than as segregated observers seated in a curtained off balcony.
I remember my own first time standing at the bema of my parents’ synagogue. It was a heady experience, treading where no Jewish woman had gone before. In addition to being a pioneer for Jewish women’s rights, other equally exhilarating experiences were taking place for all of us.
Nineteen-sixty-nine was also the year that I first heard about the Jewish Renewal Movement. That was a group of mostly young Jews seeking to rediscover their traditional roots and at the same time renew those ancient symbols with modern relevance.
It was also the era when the great union activist, Caesar Chavez, began organizing farm workers. The United Farm Workers Union called for a boycott of iceberg lettuce to protest the refusal of California growers to negotiate with them.
A group of rabbis, many of them mainstream religious leaders from Conservative and Reform synagogues, got together and studied Torah, Talmud, Mishna and other sacred Jewish writings. They discovered there was a Talmudic prohibition against eating the fruit that came from the toil of oppressed workers. Using that passage, they declared California iceberg lettuce not kosher because the growers were engaging in unfair and oppressive labor practices.
That was only one imaginative use of traditional symbols in a modern context. Another that was far more controversial (and that was never endorsed by the more mainstream leaders) was when a group of young Jewish peace activists burned their draft cards using the flames of Shabbat candles on a Friday night.
To me, this was the equivalent of the Folk Mass and peace services that radical Catholics, like the Berrigan brothers, were holding. They too were finding ways to make the ancient symbols of their faith relevant to modern political struggles.
One of my favorite examples of this, among Jews, was a Peace Seder that was held on Passover, 1969, in Washington, DC. Arthur Waskow, then a young liberal rabbi presided over it and later wrote movingly about the experience.
The reason I’m reminiscing about all of this is that recently I attended a Labor Seder, which comes out of that same tradition of recasting old symbols with new meaning. Like the Peace Seder of 1969, this Seder sought to link the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from Egypt to a modern political struggle against oppression.
The Labor Seder that I just attended was held at the AFL-CIO Building. The rabbi who presided over it referred back to the 1969 Peace Seder and mentioned Rabbi Waskow. And that reference sent me back down through the years. In 1969, as a teenager, I longed to be able to go to Washington, DC, where the first Jewish Renewal Havurah (congregation) had been formed, to experience that first Peace Seder.
At the same time, I was also studying more traditional Judaism with a group of Lubavitcsher Hasidism. Those are the ultra-Orthodox mystical Jews who wear the long black coats, broad-brimmed hats, and long beards. They taught me that at Passover, every Jew must regard the Seder as a celebration of their personal liberation from Egypt, their own redemption from slavery.
In that context, it may not be so far fetched to recite this new version of the traditional Seder (Seder, by the way, is simply the order of the retelling of the Exodus story of liberation).
The AFL-CIO Seder does not replace the traditional family Seder. It’s held a few days after the official Passover Seders take place so as not to interfere with a more traditional family observance. So, many of the attendees also recite the traditional Haggadah retelling of the Passover story and sing all the traditional holiday songs.
The Labor Seder is an additional Passover celebration and an additional telling. It tells a newer, more modern tale of liberation from oppression. It’s the story of the Jewish (and Italian and Irish) immigrant girls who perished in the infamous 1919 fire at the Triangle Dress Factory, in New York City, because the fire exits had all been locked by their employer and they couldn’t escape. It tells the tale of those who went on strikes and picketed and marched in the 20s and 30s so that their descendants could have a 40 hour work week, overtime pay, and decent and safe working conditions.
As I write this, I realize that all of those things for which my ancestors fought are being threatened. The rights of ordinary working people are once again under assault. This time because of greater automation in the work place, the exporting of jobs overseas, and the general rush to the bottom. Organized labor has never, since the 1920s, been as weak as it is now.
As anti-labor laws make it harder for unions to organize, we are slowly being stripped of those hard fought for rights such as overtime pay, employer-paid health insurance, pension plans, and even Social Security, which has been the ultimate safety net. And who is left to fight for the middle class?
At times like this, it’s good to have a Labor Seder, a Peace Seder, a Freedom Seder. In fact, any type of order of retelling that reminds us of the struggles of our grandparents, who fought to ensure a certain level of fairness at work, and decency of treatment for those who work. And it’s even better to once again remember that eating the fruits of the toil of exploited labor is still unkosher.