Rose Hayes lights a rainbow of candles at a past Pride Seder at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav. 
Rose Hayes lights a rainbow of candles at a past Pride Seder at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav. 

‘Pride Seder,’ virtual this year, honors liberation history of LGBTQ Jews 

Amid all of the rainbows and parades and fantastic costumes for which Pride Month is known today, it can be easy to forget that the LGBTQ Pride movement was born out of the Stonewall uprising, a series of riots against police brutality in New York City 50 years ago — and lesser known events, such as the Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco in 1966. But as demonstrations against racist police violence have sprung up across America in recent weeks, that history seems as present as ever.

The struggle that birthed Pride Month will be palpable at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav’s 15th annual Pride Seder, which ritualizes the history of LGBTQ Jews in much the same way that the traditional Passover seder ritualizes the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

Normally held at the historically LGBTQ synagogue in the Mission District, this year the free event will be held via Zoom on June 22 from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Local dignitaries slated to appear include state Sen. Scott Wiener, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Oakland City Council member Rebecca Kaplan. For the first time, the event is being co-sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council.

Like the Passover seder, the Pride Seder uses a written haggadah as a guide. It features versions of iconic elements of the Passover seder: the four questions and four glasses (albeit of water), as well as a number of symbolic items arranged on a seder plate. And it tells a story that stretches from the rainbow in the biblical story of Noah to Nazi Germany’s persecution of LGBTQ people alongside Jews, to the riots of Stonewall in 1969.

The Pride Seder plate includes a cup of coffee to symbolize the Compton’s Cafeteria riot, the first known major act of LGBTQ resistance in the United States, in which transgender people threw coffee at police who were harassing them.

Other symbolic items include an uncovered challah to remind participants “of the sensuous sacredness of our own bodies” and, in a poetic nod to the coronavirus crisis, a feather to “remember movement” and “the way that birds are still flying over our heads.”

The Pride movement was born 50 years ago out of protests against police brutality. It’s very interconnected to what’s going on now.

The Pride haggadah used by Sha’ar Zahav is based on a number of earlier haggadahs stretching back to the Berkeley Queer Minyan in the 1990s, but it has been edited and revised over the years, primarily by Maggid Andrew Ramer, who is one of the regular leaders of the Pride Seder.

“There is a Tu B’Shevat seder, in some communities a Rosh Hashanah seder — I’ve been to all kinds of seders at different times of the year,” Ramer said. “We were once excluded from our tradition, but now we can do this, too.”

In addition to the written haggadah, the seder always includes an opportunity for people to share personal stories. “The first year was four hours long,” Ramer said. “People told their personal stories of what it was like to come out before Stonewall, what it was like to come to Sha’ar Zahav for the first time in the early years — it’s a highlight of the seder.”

The protests against racist police violence sweeping the country resonate with the history of Pride, says Rabbi Mychal Copeland.

“The Pride movement was born 50 years ago out of protests against police brutality. It’s very interconnected to what’s going on now,” she said.

“In our community, we have a large percentage of Jews of color, so the connection is very much there for us.”

Nevertheless, the celebratory spirit of Pride will not be missing from Sha’ar Zahav events this month.

“I invite people to dress up as festively as they want,” Ramer said of the seder.

Later this month, Sha’ar Zahav’s typically raucous Friday night Pride Shabbat service, which usually features decorations, rainbow challah and more than a few nods to Broadway camp, will take place on Zoom on June 26.

“We need it, our community needs the celebration,” Copeland said. “It will be just as campy, as fun and as celebratory.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is interim associate editor of J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor, and is a member of the board of the American Jewish Press Association. He can be reached at [email protected].