Miriam is the focus at a mystical seder in San Francisco

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When is a women’s seder not a women’s seder? When it takes the form of a mystical journey.

With Miriam taking center stage — and Moses relegated to the supporting cast — a pre-Passover event tabbed “Mystical Seder” was held March 15 at Congregation Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco. Thirty women of a variety of ages attended, along with a few men.

Heather Mendel

South African–born author and artist Heather Mendel and Jewish educator and song leader Ricki Weintraub guided the group through Mendel’s “Towards Freedom: A Feminist Haggadah for Men and Women in the New Millennium,” first published in 1995.

Mendel told J. that feminist seders have become common these days, making her haggadah seem, in many ways, mainstream. Yet she continues using the text, modified slightly in 2001, adding “in the New Millennium” to the title, because she has seen how it continues to resonate with Jewish groups.

She also explained how a feminist seder differs from a women’s seder: by inviting examination of contemporary women’s issues through the ancient stories.

Participants at the March 15 seder took turns reading aloud the stories of women that Mendel wove into the text of “Towards Freedom”: the biblical matriarchs Rebecca, Rachel and Leah; the ancient prophetess Hulda; and the nameless concubine raped, tortured and killed in the Book of Judges. Mendel refers to this woman as Bat Sheber, “daughter of brokenness.”

“Where is the rabbinic outcry against my treatment?” asks Bat Sheber in Mendel’s haggadah. “The silence is deafening. Until you live in a society where women are no longer abused, one in which their value and worth is appreciated and honored, the bitterness must remain in your mouths, to spur you on to fight for the rights of all people to enjoy the beauty of what life has to offer.”

Ricki Weintraub

That theme of social justice, particularly in regard to women and girls, was a consistent theme at the seder, as was feminine spiritual strength.

As participants dipped their fingers into their wine to spill out drops in remembrance of the Ten Plagues, they recounted ways in which “fear has severely affected women through the ages,” as written in the haggadah. The book noted how the plague of blood symbolizes that “our monthly bleeding was feared,” how flies personify that society often views women’s interests as “inconsequential” and how darkness shows that “our difference was feared and likened to an absence of light.”

Participants also read a long passage about Miriam helping lead the Israelites out of Egypt, caring for children, the sick and the elderly. “She carried two infants, one in each arm, as their mother was too weak to manage,” the haggadah notes.

Then, with Weintraub leading the familiar Debbie Friedman musical version of the story (“And Miriam was a weaver of unique variety …”), those around the table sang, swayed and clapped.

It was also an evening of poignant memories, as members of the Reform synagogue and their friends shared stories about beloved congregant and artist Robin Winburn-Woll, who died three months ago. The candlesticks Weintraub and Mendel lit were specially selected to honor Winburn-Woll’s memory.

Beth Israel Judea also has planned a community second-night seder at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 4.