Those Bay Area Jewish women who placed oranges on their seder plates last week probably explained the act something like this:
It all began when Susannah Heschel, a leading Jewish feminist scholar, was lecturing at a synagogue in Miami. As she spoke, an elderly rabbi stood up and declared, "A woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on the seder plate."
Thus to show support for the changing role of women in American Jewish society, the tradition of placing an orange on the seder plate began, and Heschel became a household name at many Passover celebrations around the globe.
That's more or less the version I heard, except I've also encountered a variant that said it was a reference to female rabbis.
Oops. Go urban legends based on modicums of truth! Also, another victory for "the man" co-opting rituals and ideas and draining them of their original content!
The only problem is, according to Heschel herself, the story isn't true.
"What you hear is not what actually happened," she recently told a crowd at the Marin Jewish Community Center program on "Women who Shook the Jewish World." "It's been circulating for a long time and it's become a bit of an urban legend."
Here's what actually happened:
Heschel was visiting a college in the Northeast where she learned that some of the students had started placing crusts of bread on their seder plates as a way to express the exclusion of women and homosexuals from Judaism.
Heschel thought this was great. But since it violated the Passover dietary restrictions, she decided to modify the act, placing an orange on the plate instead of the bread crust to represent both women and homosexuals.
"The first year I used a tangerine," the mother of two revealed to the packed room of mostly women and some men. "Everyone at the seder got a section of it and as we ate it we would spit out the seeds in solidarity with homosexuals -- the seeds represented homophobia."
Heschel, chair of the Jewish studies program at Dartmouth College, said she was "horrified" at first by the way the story of the orange metamorphosed.
One, "they took my idea and put it into a man's mouth." Two, "they erased the whole idea of the homophobia that needs to be spit out."
Yeah, boo hoo for you and everybody else who's ever gotten their ideas ripped off. It's a curse of popularity, ma'am. The same thing happened to your Dad, Maimonides, Jesus, and pretty much anybody people encounter in a college survey course.
Of course, this Passover might see oranges appearing on some Orthodox seder plates- though probably for a different reason.