Bringing Women to the (Seder) Table

March 27 not only marks the start of Passover, but is one of the final days of Women’s History Month. While these celebrations are generally disconnected, their overlap gives us a critical opportunity to examine the interrelated nature of women and the Passover story.

Without a doubt, Moses is the star of Passover, credited with saving and ultimately leading the Jewish people out of Egypt after more than two centuries of slavery. While his fanfare his warranted, it’s the quiet cast of women — Yocheved, Miriam, Shifra and Puah, and Batya — who represent the daring changemakers of this story, and in many ways are responsible for the rescue of the Jewish people.

Yocheved boldly put her son, Moses, in a basket, sending him down the river to save his life, and Batya, Pharoh’s daughter, brazenly pulled him out and raised him. Shifra and Puah, the fearless midwives, protected Jewish baby boys after Pharoh decreed that they all be drowned. And of course, Miriam, Moses’ big sister, boldly took the first steps to cross the Red Sea, leading the Jewish people to their ultimate freedom — a leap of faith setting a precedent for all who followed.

It’s no wonder the rabbis state that if it were not for the women, the Jewish people would not have left Egypt. In the Talmud’s Mishnah Sotah, they note: “In the merit of the righteous women that were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt.”

So why don’t we talk about these women with the same reverence as we do Moses? Where are the women in the Passover story? And why didn’t the rabbis enshrine their accolades in our ritual practice?

These missing narratives are not exclusive to the Festival of Freedom. Throughout history there are countless instances of women modestly working their magic, without fanfare or tributes, to change the world. In the Jewish community — especially at a time when we are innovating our holidays to fit the pandemic reality and also including new or underrepresented voices in our practice — we can give new meaning to the commandment to listen and retell the tale.

Let’s make it our charge this Passover, to bring women’s contributions to the forefront by weaving their invaluable stories into the heart of our seders and our everyday lives. Three steps can help enrich our celebrations and highlight the roles of women in our collective and personal stories.

First, during the seder, integrate women by adding their stories into the reciting of Magid (the retelling of the Passover story). Take it upon yourself to find a special point to integrate the story of Shifra and Puah, or Batya, just as you would the ten plagues or crossing of the Red Sea. You can also include an homage to them on the table, such as a symbolic basket for Yocheved or even sing an empowering song in honor of Miriam. The ubiquitous orange is important and these new rituals can also change the way these legendary women are seen and heard.

Secondly, make sure what starts at your seder is applicable every day. In my house, that’s recognizing and celebrating a career accomplishment, a distinction at school, and carrying forward our family tradition of applauding my mother at the end of Shabbat dinner. For even more resonance, add in the stories of present-day women, ones who may even be sitting at your own seder or dinner table, or those who have come before you. Tell about how they sacrificed and preserved under extreme circumstances for the sake of their families and those around them. At this year’s seder, I will be sure to applaud those matriarchs who traversed a challenging road so that I could be together with my family enjoying a beautiful holiday in relative comfort. As the mother of a newborn daughter, I understand the importance of infusing family time with opportunities to highlight empowered women who serve as role models for the next generation.

Third, make a greater effort to uncover and highlight the lives of women who changed the course of our history in unknown ways. The global archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the global humanitarian organization where I work, has brought some of those women together in an online exhibit called Imagine More. These women, like so many others around the world, were essential to social impact advancements and efforts cultivating Jewish life. These health and childcare innovators, humanitarian advocates, and community builders, have timeless impact and provide desperately needed inspiration to other women. They are the legacy bearers of the women of the Passover story and women we should equally esteem. Irma May, for example, was a social worker assisting Jews in Poland during the 1920’s, who educated the public about dire conditions of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Laura Margolis ran a refugee relief program for almost 20,000 European Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis for Shanghai. These women withstood many challenges, even risking their lives, to save lives.

Laura Margolis speaks with a French public health service official about assessing the health problems of the refugees on the SS Exodus, Port de Bouc, France, c. 1947. Photograph: Al Taylor. Courtesy: JDC Archives
JDC social worker, Irma May, with Jewish children en route to summer camp, Warsaw, c. 1932–35. Photograph: Foto-Forbert Studio. Courtesy: JDC Archives

At this year’s seder, with my mother, grandmother, and newborn daughter beside me, I will take a moment to be thankful for each generation of women that’s worked to ensure a better future for the next. It’s our responsibility to remember that their stories — just like the Rabbis of Bnai Brak and the traditional Four Sons (a.k.a Four Children) — deserve a place at our seder tables. So, let’s raise a glass (or four) to these women heroes and in our new telling of the story of freedom, let’s put them center stage.

Rebecca Zisholtz is the Media Relations Manager at JDC.

Manager, Media Relations — JDC