As a Jewish Feminist, I’m Inspired By The Unsung Passover Hero

As a Jewish Feminist, I’m Inspired By The Unsung Passover Hero

When I was very little, I went to my first concert.

The musician was Debbie Friedman, a Jewish singer famous for reinventing prayer by setting traditional blessings or stories to music. She took stuffy prayers and created catchy campfire songs. My parents and I were sitting up in the balcony, listening to Debbie’s music. The concert’s finale was her “Miriam’s Song.” Debbie began to play the song on the guitar, and before she could even start to sing, I noticed the women sitting down at stage-level standing. In sync, they all made their way into the aisles, where they picked up tambourines. As Debbie sang “Miriam and the women danced, they danced the whole night long,” the women of the audience grapevined around the entire auditorium. I felt like I was witnessing real magic.

I have loved “Miriam’s Song” ever since.

The song’s Miriam is Moses’ sister who we’re told put her baby brother in a basket and floated him down the river to save him. Miriam is lauded for her bravery, her heroism, her courage in the face of adversity. Moses may have parted the Red Sea, we’re taught, but it was Miriam who looked at the split waters, held her timbrel up high, rejoiced, and led the exhausted people in a glorious song.

Miriam – and her song – have become symbols of Jewish feminism. Traditionally, the story of Passover is male-dominated. Whether you learn it at your family’s seder table or from the Rugrats Passover special, you learn the tale of the enslavement of the Jewish people at the hands of Pharaoh (a man), and then, of course, of Moses (you guessed it, another man)  the prophet who said “let my people go!” and who led the Israelites out of Egypt via the miraculously-parted Red Sea. Miriam’s story always felt a little bit like an after-thought to me, like she was never quite given her fair share in the telling of the traditional narrative.

Over the years, we’ve seen a sort of reclaiming of Passover. At its core, the holiday is commemorative and contemplative, asking us to pause to reflect on the hardships and struggles our ancestors faced and to recognize the ways in which we may still be “enslaved” in our 21st century lives. The story of Passover, as a story of overcoming oppression, is one that early feminist groups could latch onto; women identified with the plight of the early Israelites and it seemed there was no better event on the Jewish calendar during which to acknowledge the struggles and accomplishments of women.

Families started pouring an extra glass of wine for Miriam in recognition of her heroism. In the eighties, scholar Susannah Heschel explained during a speech at Oberlin College’s Hillel that she was beginning to add an orange to her Seder plate, to represent LGBTQ+ and female-identifying Jewish people. Since oranges don’t traditionally “belong” on the seder plate, she argued, the fruit was a depiction of a spirit of inclusion, of making room for those who may be marginalized or left out of the standard religious experience. There are now many feminist seders and adaptations of the story of Passover through a feminist lens.

I’m not sure we have to put feminism on Passover.

For me, it’s always been there. Passover, to me, has never really been about Egypt, or what you can and cannot eat, or about the order in which the plagues descended upon the Egyptians. To me, Passover has always been about strength, about demanding to be heard, respected and valued. At its core, the holiday strikes me as a testament to bravery. Though I struggle, at times, with how to reconcile parts of my religion with some of my beliefs as a 21st century feminist, Passover always seemed to make sense.

This Spring, as I geared up to observe Passover and began to think about these themes, about courage, and triumph, and making something beautiful in the face of danger and exhaustion, I heard “Miriam’s Song” loudly in my head.

So this year, as I put away bread products, I am turning my mind towards Miriam, and to all of the modern-day Miriams who have astounded me with their courage, resourcefulness, and resilience. As I do, I realize that these values, central to my religion and to my sense of self, are values I’ve associated with women all along.