I thought it was revolutionary

Each Passover we leave a cup of wine on our seder tables for the prophet Elijah. Last week, the prophetess Miriam was invited, too, to join the Bay Area Women's Seder held at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El.

Wherever the Israelites went, a wellspring of water sprang up. "It was called Miriam's well," said Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Emanu-El, explaining why Miriam' s cup is filled with water.

About 140 women attended the seder, co-sponsored by Women of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, Kehilla Community Synagogue in Berkeley and Congregations Rodef Sholom of San Rafael and Sha'ar Zahav and Sherith Israel, both of San Francisco.

Besides Miriam's cup there were a few other twists. An orange sat on the seder plate next to such traditional symbols as charoset and roasted egg.

According to an often-repeated story, Jewish scholar Susannah Heschel was speaking at a Florida synagogue about women rabbis. A man jumped to his feet and shouted, "A woman belongs on the bimah as much as bread belongs on the seder plate!"

Heschel responded, "Women bring to the bimah what an orange would bring to the seder plate: transformation, not transgression."

That story was included in the 1996 "Ma'yan Passover Haggadah," used at the seder, which was led by Mintz, along with Rabbis Jane Litman of Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco and Zari Weiss of Kehilla.

Cantors Roslyn Barak of Emanu-El and Linda Hirschhorn of San Leandro's Temple Beth Sholom led the music. In addition, Vocolot, Hirschhorn's five-woman a cappella group, also performed.

In the Haggadah, each cup of wine is dedicated to a woman in Jewish history. The first honors Anesath bat Samuel Barazani, who lived in Kurdistan from 1590 until 1670. A Talmud scholar, she had a ketubah (marriage contract) with a stipulation exempting her from housework so that she could devote herself to study.

Meredith Cahn, 42, chair of Rodef Sholom's women's seder, applauded the approach. "It matches my Judaism with my feminism," she said. "Passover is a festival of freedom but women are usually left out."

The Haggadah includes other innovations. Instead of talking about the sages who struggled against Rome, it recalls the women who, in 1989, carried a Torah scroll to the Western Wall.

Instead of the four sons, the Haggadah tells of the four daughters: the daughter in search of a usable past, the daughter who wants to erase her difference, the daughter who does not know that she has a place at the table and the daughter who asks no questions.

The Haggadah's "Dayeinu" reads like a handbook for activism: "If we continue to organize, march and vote to affirm our values and convictions, Dayeinu."

For fourth-grader Martina Suess of San Francisco, the best part was the dancing. During the singing of "Miriam's Slow Snake Dance by the Riverside," an original composition by Hirschhorn, girls and women grabbed tambourines and other instruments and danced between the tables.

Others remarked on the spirited participation.

"We can't stop talking to each other," said Karen Mariner of Walnut Creek, who brought along 3-week-old daughter Lucy. "There isn't a single lap in this room I wouldn't put her in."

The festive meal was served entirely by men.

"I thought it was revolutionary," said Vicky Slone, who is going through the conversion program at Emanu-El. "It brought the traditional theme of freedom into a personal journey that is universal for women in different cultures."