Reflections on Womanhood at the Women's Seder

(The following talk was given by Debbie Zoller, Executive Director of JFS at the Women’s Seder at Temple Beth El.) 

I was honored to be asked by Chelsea to speak at this beautiful Women’s Seder. I am very lucky to work with Chelsea at JFS and with a staff of all women who never cease to amaze me with their creativity, leadership, passion, sense of humor and desire to help others. It was not deliberate to have agency staffed by all women, but it has made JFS a very special place. Women are often drawn to the helping professions. Women are often seen as the nurturers, and Miriam in the Passover story exemplifies this role. Tonight, I’m looking at a group of amazing women – some mothers, all of us daughters. I imagine you might be here because you are seeking to connect with other women in this powerful year where women are finding their own voices and standing up to injustice and abuse.

I had to dig deep into my own childhood with Passover and truthfully, I miss being a child at Passover. As the daughter of a rabbi, I loved when my dad conducted the seder. My mom always gathered the family together and even though she made the preparations look easy, she slaved away preparing. I grew up surrounded by strong independent women who didn’t really think they mattered as much as the men. My grandmother Ida who would prepare delicious homemade gefilte fish was proud of so many years as a Hadassah president. She was a bold and dynamic character, but always felt men had more clout. My husband Leon’s first meal with my family was at the seder. My Aunt May boldly turned to him at first sight and asked his intentions. Of course, there was the expectation that if I managed to bring a man to the seder, the hope was that I could catch him.

As I became an adult, I had a job where I organized a community-wide seder at a residential treatment center where challenged adults lived. Their parents would come from all over the New York area to sit with their children at a seder because their children were unable to live with them due to multiple issues. My dad and I also co-facilitated a seder for a group of nuns one year at Marymount College. The last time I was at a Women’s Seder was in Charleston, South Carolina at the synagogue I attended. All of these memories are with me tonight as I share why it means so much to be here tonight.

Last week, my 88-year-old mom and I went on a cruise together. It was my first cruise and the first cruise my mom had taken since losing my dad. My mother is an amazing woman. She has a doctorate in social work. She lost two children and a brother. At one time in our lives, we co-facilitated mother-daughter groups. I was the child who was always in awe of my mom and in many ways, I still am. I always felt that I would never be as competent as her. And as she grows older and reviews her life, I know that in some ways our roles have reversed and I need to be strong for her. 

I am a mother of identical twins, Rachel and Sarah. Rachel works at the JCC of New Orleans and Sarah works for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. I became a grandmother to Hannah Pearl 14 months ago. I was and continue to be part of four generations of women. As a woman, I’ve had joys and challenges – births and losses, breast cancer, eating disorders, and yes, I was a ME TOO before we knew that you could ever say anything about people who abused their power. All of these experiences have influenced who I am as a daughter, mother and grandmother.

Each of you tonight brings your own unique experiences – some as mothers, all as daughters and some as grandmothers. Close your eyes for a minute and reflect on what these experiences have meant to you. You may be missing someone special and these are powerful emotions. Tonight, think of how empowering it is to be with other women who are here to connect themselves to their past and to plant seeds for the future.

Passover is about liberation from bondage. How can we as women really be free when there is so much violence and trauma in our daily lives? How can women make a better world so that we are subject to today’s plagues of violence, assaults, poverty and illness?

Our seder tonight reminds us that as women, we have the capacity to love, connect and build bridges. We can be whoever we want to be because we are strong. Men really depend on us to set the world straight, to provide a nurturing hand and to do what is right. It is our relationships with the special women in our lives who empower us to continue on. I think of all the women I know including my mother who lost husbands and kept on going because they built incredible relationships with other women.

I recently had a therapy session with a mom who was very worried about her adult daughter’s behavior, feeling her daughter was out of control and exhibiting harmful behaviors.  She asked me what to do, I said, “No matter what your daughter does and how much it hurts you to see what is happening to her, always reassure her that you will always be there for her, you will love her and be her mother.”

We are liberated when we express our love as mothers, daughters and grandmothers and when we are mindful that these relationships are precious. Nobody deserves to be hurt and be subject to abuse. Passover reminds us that we have the tools to get through life journey. It is possible to hold on to the past and build for the future.

In conclusion, the words of the great poet Maya Angelou resonate: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

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