I had the blessing of being present at the 6th ALEPH Kallah, in Colorado in July of 1995. And during a meeting of the “Gay and Lesbian Mishpocha” group, I met Ray Schnitzler, who gave me a copy of the Berkeley Queer Minyan’s “Queer Pride Seder.” I was very excited by this seder. This was not simply a gay and lesbian centric version of the Passover Haggadah. No, this was the recognition that there was a completely different holiday of liberation that needed to be celebrated by GLBT Jews -- Gay Pride Weekend. A holiday that could draw on Jewish traditions, and at the same time draw on the queer tradition as well.
When I shared the pages of the Queer Pride Seder with the members of the Gay and Lesbian Committee at my synagogue, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City, everyone felt the same way -- we had to adapt this material and celebrate this holiday in our own community.
B’nai Jeshurun is not a gay and lesbian synagogue. However, even though it is a Conservative synagogue it has held commitment ceremonies for same gender couples since the 1980s. It’s a place where lesbian and gay folk are not denied places of responsibility and honor in the community (in fact we hold many of them). And we wanted to honor that in turn, as well as tell the stories of queer Jews who have been instrumental in the struggle for LGBT civil rights. We felt the liturgy created by the Queer Minyan was a good foundation to build on.
I went to work on a first draft, and presented it to the committee members and the rabbis at BJ. It went through several rounds of revisions. And as one might expect, there was much debate. And to this day there are a few things in the text that people still strongly disagree on. But when it was done, we held our first Stonewall Shabbat Seder on June XX, 1996. Rolf XXXXX, a former patient of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, and a German Jewish refugee who had been living on the Upper West Side for more than 60 years was our first Guest of Honor. The event was so moving to so many people that the rabbis suggested we make it an annual dinner, in effect, adding a holiday to our synagogue calendar on the Shabbat evening before Gay Pride Day in New York.
That’s exactly what happened, and over the next six years the text was revised in a few ways. Rituals that didn’t work were discarded. Since the telling of the story includes the ongoing story, the final section was updated each year to reflect new developments. And in those six years our Guests of Honor included Joan Nestle, the founder of the lesbian Herstory Archive; Congressman Barney Frank; and filmmaker Sandi DuBowski, director of Trembling Before G-d. Attendance for the dinner ranged from 90 to 140 people.
As people left the community however, there wasn’t the energy to continue to hold the dinner. The logistics of organizing the event every year was a job no one was willing to take on at that point, so we stopped doing it. But because I had been inspired by the text that I’d received, I printed up several hundred copies of the last Haggadah and distributed it at conferences of LGBT Jews as well as at the Gay Spirituality Summit in 19XX. Between copies that people took from the seders held at BJ, and the copies given out later, other communities began either performing the seder as written (at the Queer Shabbaton in Amsterdam for example) or adapting and rewriting sections (as at Cong. Sh’ar Zahav).
I was so impressed with how Andrew Ramer and Joss Eldredge of Sh’ar Zahav revised it, that when BJ decided to hold the seder again this year, 2007, I looked at their text and revised ours to include prayers and reading from their Haggadah. And because this year the seder was held under the auspices of the synagogue’s Marriage Equlaity Hevra, this year it was revised in other ways to focus on the story of marriage equalty.
Now it seems time to share this evolution of the original work by Susie Kisber and Ray Schnitzler with other queer Jews from around the world via the web. I do this in the hope that others will recreate and take this work to a new and different level. In the hope that the seder will become a custom that takes new forms and will spread among our many communities.
How to use this document: Some caveats
This Haggadah was developed specifically for use at B’nai Jeshurun. In early versions the section on the “1990’s Through Today” it referred to some events at our synagogue. This year it was revised to focus on marriage equality in New York as well as around the world. If you want to use this Seder, please change it to suit your needs. You may want to rework the whole historical format entirely. Feel free. Be creative. After all, it’s our heritage as queer people. Other things in the text you might want to change might include:
The “Q” Word: A Language Issue — Let’s start with the use of the word “queer.” At the beginning of the dinner, people go around the table individually, introduce themselves and explain the ways in which they were queer. Before this is done an explanation of the word “queer,” and its relationship to the word “Jew” is read aloud. This encourages both reflection and debate among the participants about the ways in which all of us, no matter who we are, keep ourselves separate from community and from God. And while there are people who are unhappy with the use of the word, most people feel a greater sense of wholeness because of this discussion. I encourage you to try it out — I will never forget the year I sat at a table with a famous person who revealed something while we did this go round. It stunned everyone into silence it was so moving. There is great power to this ritual if approached with an open heart, even though it can make people nervous it builds spiritual intimacy. However, if it doesn’t work for you or your community, try something else.
How Much Do We Read? — Yes, it’s a long text. And like another Seder in our tradition, each time we read it, we have chosen to read some parts and leave others out. For example, we have never read the section entitled “Yom Kippur Morning at Kehilla Community Synagogue.” It’s there for people to read on their own. For educational purposes, if you will. As before, add what you like, take out what you like. Read what you like, skip what you like (or don’t like!)
Intellectual Property — In order to reflect accurately what we have read at B’nai Jeshurun, I have violated intellectual property rights and included in this text two poems, one by Adrienne Rich and one by Allen Ginsberg, as well as excerpted texts from a story by Leslea Newman. These are all used here without permission. I acknowledge this, and the responsibility is mine alone. If you feel uncomfortable appropriating these texts in this way, don’t use them.
Some Other Words People Don’t Like: Speaking of Allen Ginsberg, there are some words in his poem, the “Footnote to Howl”, that make some people very upset. Odd, isn’t it? So at B’nai Jeshurun, I have been the one to read this poem aloud. Some years (for example when there were children present) when I get to these words I did not read them aloud, I simply noted there are other names for body parts that make people uncomfortable and that these too are holy, and go on. Other years I have read the whole section. As with the word “Queer” there are words that make people uncomfortable. For the most part, I believe to reach a greater wholeness it’s important that we don’t cut these words out of our experience. This may be something you feel differently about. If so, don’t read it, cut it out entirely. For me, this poem speaks to the heart of the split between sexuality and spirituality that this ritual is designed to help heal, and so is extremely important.
The “Meditation” on the Candles: You will note there is no blessing on lighting the candles. That’s simply because the dinner has always started after Kabbalat Shabbat services -- and the candles were lit before we entered the dining hall. So we “meditate” on the light. If you do this in a private home as part of a Shabbat dinner, clearly you can do the blessings if you light the candles at the right time.
The Seder Plate: You may wish to change what’s on your plate. Add or delete. Change the text. If it isn’t already clear, you are free to use this service in any way that makes sense to you. It’s not like we’re the Rabbinic Assembly after all.
The Hebrew & Transliteration: You’ll note the Hebrew has not been word processed into this document -- everything is scanned from different sources. It’s messy. It’s inconsistent. It’s not the best way to do it. I hope you can do better so that in a few years I’ll be holding something your community has put together that looks and reads better than what you’re holding.
A last word -- I have been very blessed to have been a part of the chain of creation here. This service is built on the work of many who came before me. It would not exist without them. We are all in their debt.