Rewriting the traditional Passover text from the voices of women

Carol Fox Prescott and Susan Rosen. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Carol Fox Prescott and Susan Rosen. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Like most Judeo-Christian scriptures, the Haggadah, the text traditionally read at the Passover meal, or seder, emphasizes the male actors in the Biblical story — in this case, the drama of the Jews’ flight from slavery in Egypt. But the Exodus saga also features many important women, from the midwives who refused to kill the baby Moses despite the Pharaoh’s orders, to Tziporah, Moses’ wife, who rescued him from death when they returned to Egypt to free the slaves.

In a three-session workshop at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation’s new Lev Shalem Institute, Susan Rosen and Carol Fox Prescott will lead participants in a rewriting of the Haggadah to reflect the vital roles of women in the Exodus. “In the Voice of Our Mothers: A New Way to Tell the Story of Passover” will be held on three consecutive Sundays, from March 15 to March 29. The resultant Haggadah will be read at the WJC’s Community Passover Seder, on Saturday evening, April 4.

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“There are many women’s Haggadahs,” said Rosen, who runs personal transformation programs at her center, Miriam’s Well, in Saugerties. “Most of them were written by feminists, starting in the 70s, but those have been about the women. We’re writing it in the voice of the women.” Men are also invited to be part of the process.

The impetus for the workshop comes from the work of Prescott, who wrote stories in the 1990s about the matriarchs of Bible, including Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Miriam. “Carol made up stories about what women would have said, how they would have told their stories,” Rosen explained. “For Rebekah, what were her feelings about breaking the lineage? What was it like for Leah and Rachel to marry the same man?” When Rosen read the stories, she encouraged Prescott, a prominent director, actress, and acting teacher, to shape them into a performance. Over the past few years, Miriam’s Well has produced Prescott’s play, In the Voices of Our Mothers, at universities, prisons, churches, and synagogues.

“The reactions from audiences have been incredible,” said Rosen. “People loved it and were grateful to finally hear what women had to say. Their stories are our stories, what they were dealing with in terms of emotions and family. Even men felt it made a difference in their relations to their mothers and wives, that they understood more.”

 

Projective dreamwork

It was a natural next step to envisage the women’s point of view in the Passover story. This time, Prescott and Rosen decided to make the process communal and to work under the auspices of the Lev Shalem Institute, which is headed by longtime WJC rabbi Jonathan Kligler and provides in-depth workshops and studies on spiritual topics.

Prescott will lead acting exercises to help participants access intuition and imagination. Rosen will introduce projective dreamwork, a therapeutic process she teaches, in which “someone tells a dream, and we try to figure out the dream, but not just for the person who dreamed it. When I hear it, I have my own image of the dream, like when we see movies and read books, and we bring them into our own imagination. We’ll use history the way it’s written and embellish it into our own version.” Current WJC rabbi Aura Ahuvia will be on hand to support the process.

Many women will have the chance to speak through the participants’ imaginations, including the mother of Moses, who left him in the bulrushes to save his life; his sister, Miriam, who watched over the baby; the Egyptian princess who found the baby; the Jewish wives and mothers departing from Egypt. Their imagined words will be compiled into the new Haggadah.

“Women bring different qualities than men do,” mused Rosen. “They’re more focused on emotion, vision, intuition. They take on the role of carrying on the line, making sure people are safe, making sure their children go on in life in a good way. Not that men don’t do that, but they are more focused on career, and women are more focused on the soul. Their voices help us connect to our own humanity, who we are.”

 

Stories about the stories

A traditional seder includes 14 elements that will be maintained, with small differences, such as having the “Four Questions” about the purpose of the seder asked, not by a son, but by a child. It is customary for people at a seder to take turns reading paragraphs from the Haggadah, and the facilitators hope to make this tradition even more interactive. “We’re going to have people talking to each other, to stimulate conversation,” said Rosen. “It’s what you’re supposed to do at Passover, repeat the story and tell it to the children. Rabbi Aura will help us shape the Haggadah and make sure everything is in it that needs to be in it. She’ll also bring music.”

Rosen is confident that the rewriting will be valuable. “The Jewish tradition is to write stories about the stories,” she remarked. “Since ancient times, rabbis have been doing it. It’s a sacred act, a mitzvah, or blessing — a wonderful thing to do.”

 

“In the Voice of Our Mothers: A New Way to Tell the Story of Passover” will be held at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, 1682 Glasco Turnpike, Woodstock, on three Sundays, March 15, 22, and 29, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Advance registration is required. The cost for the workshop is $150, with a 50 percent discount for WJC members. Register also to reserve a spot at the WJC Community Seder, Saturday evening, April 4, when the new Haggadah will be presented. Contact the Lev Shalem Institute at (845) 679-2218 or info-lsi@wjcshul.org for more information.

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