The Tomato Finds Its Place On The Seder Plate
Tue, 03/27/2012
Staff Writer
Crowded seder plate: The centerpiece of the seder table, which had added an orange in recent years, will make room for a tomato.
Crowded seder plate: The centerpiece of the seder table, which had added an orange in recent years, will make room for a tomato.

The pre-Passover shopping list of Rabbi Paula Marcus is growing this year.

A pulpit rabbi in California, she will buy the standard items this week: some kosher food, some boxes of matzah, some bottles of wine. And one non-standard item: a tomato.

The tomato is for her seder plate, not for a recipe.

A member of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, an interdenominational, New York-based organization that numbers modern-day slavery among its educational and advocacy issues, Rabbi Marcus will put the tomato in the center of her seder plate — alongside the traditional bitter herbs, charoset, parsley, shank bone and eggs, and an orange, a recent addition in many homes — as a symbol of contemporary slavery.

Moved by the two visits to tomato-growing country in Florida that delegations of RHR rabbis conducted in the last year, meeting with often-underpaid and overworked tomato pickers, and conducting “pray-ins” at supermarkets that had not signed a Fair Food Act that guarantees higher pay and better working conditions, the rabbi decided to put a tomato on her seder table as a reminder of the workers’ plight.

“It’s just obvious to me,” she says.

“We imagine what it was like to be slaves and celebrate our freedom,” she wrote recently in San Francisco’s jweekly newspaper. “But the truth is, there are people in our own country who don’t have to imagine what it is like to be a slave.”

Over the last few years, the issues of actual slavery (estimates of people working today as slaves in the world today range between 12 and 27 million) and workers’ rights (many, like the tomato pickers in Florida, are said to work in near-slavery conditions) have achieved greater visibility in parts of the Jewish community. Especially at Passover, the holiday that commemorates the ancient Hebrews’ freedom from slavery. Individual seder leaders, and organizations like RHR (which produces an “anti-slavery” Haggadah supplement and table cards that contain stories of modern-day slavery), Boston’s Workmen’s Circle branch and Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in West Newton, Mass., have incorporated reminders of farm workers’ rights into their seder readings.

This year the tomato — along with words of accompanying text — becomes the latest symbolic food officially added to some seder tables.

RHR and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (the central labor representative of agricultural workers “in low-wage jobs” in Florida) this week announced that they are urging Jewish homes to put a tomato on their seder plate.

“The foods on the seder plate are meant to elicit questions that lead to the telling of the story of the Exodus,” according to a statement released by RHR and CIW. “We hope the tomato will lead to questions about the legacy of slavery today and to discussion about the progress being made by the CIW — supported by Jewish communities — to bring about a just- slavery-free workplace.”

During a holiday that fosters both memory and creativity (think of the new tradition of the Miriam’s Cup, which celebrates women’s role in deliverance), the seder plate, whose rituals were established at least a millennium ago, has increasingly become that palette on which Jews express their social, political and theological concerns.

Symbolic items that have found their way onto the seder plate over the years include:

♦ potato peelings or beets, to commemorate Jews who starved during the Holocaust.

♦ a fourth matzah, for Soviet Jews who were not free to practice Judaism.

♦ a roasted potato or a boiled beet, in place of a shank bone, for vegetarians who don’t want meat on their tables. Other people used the potato as a symbol of solidarity with Ethiopian Jews who, because of their earlier near-starvation diets, were unable to eat much substantial food when they first arrived in Israel.

♦ an olive, for peace in the Middle East.

♦ a crust of bread, to express the exclusion of women and homosexuals from parts of the Jewish community. Or an orange, for the same reason.

♦ an artichoke, a symbol for interfaith families.

♦ a plantain, symbolizing oppression in Cuba.

♦ an empty picture frame or an unlit candle, to symbolize China’s suppression of Tibet, including its ban on pictures the Dalai Lama.

♦ Fair Trade chocolate or cocoa beans, a symbol of forced labor.

♦ during the Civil War, a brick. It was an innovation by a Union soldier who was unable, during a battle, to provide charoset.

Last year essayist Paul Greenberg suggested, in The New York Times, an oyster on the seder plate, to remember the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

But modern-day slavery has become the seder-night issue du jour. And the seder, says Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, a faculty member at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, “has become a public forum. It’s a great time to make a statement.”

Seder plate additions “are within the spirit” of the holiday, he says.

These symbols are intended to make a link between the biblical story of the Jews leaving Egypt, and participants’ contemporary narratives. Their lasting power varies.

“Some things are of the moment. Some can have lasting significance,” says Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, spiritual leader of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism synagogue on the Upper West Side and co-author of the take-Judaism-into-your-own-hands series of “Jewish Catalogs” a generation ago.

“Here’s a place where it makes sense,” Rabbi Strassfeld says of the tomato, adding that seder plate innovations are popular because seders take place in people’ homes, where “There is no rabbi to say ‘Don’t do that.’ It’s up to us.”

“The whole idea” of the seder rituals, says Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, is to give the message that “it isn’t something that happened thousands of years ago.” Slavery and oppression didn’t end at the Exodus. The number of people working now as slaves “is increasing — dramatically,” he says.

A tomato on a seder plate “makes total sense,” Rabbi Gutow says. Such additions “help us reflect on the past.”

Every few years seem to bring another symbolic addition to the seder plate. Rabbi Sid Schwartz, a senior fellow at Clal and director of a national interfaith social justice project based at Auburn Theological Seminary here, refers to the trend as a part of Jews’ “continuous revelation,” which “enhances” the Pesach experience. “The creation of ritual,” he says, is “a great affirmation of [Jews] taking Judaism seriously.”

Rabbi Marcus says she will put a tomato on the seder plate of every seder she attends this year, including a model seder during the week before the holiday begins.

Like the other seder readings and rituals, it’s intended to provoke questions, she says; she’s ready to talk about contemporary slavery.

She’ll buy a big tomato, “not a cherry tomato,” at a local grocery that stocks produce from a farm that pays its workers a living wage, says Rabbi Marcus, who has served since 1979 at Temple Beth El in Aptos, Calif., as teacher and cantor and now as spiritual leaders.

Will Rabbis for Human Rights suggest a tomato on the seder plate again next year?

Probably, says Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, who runs North American programs for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. Unless the need for the symbolism — i.e., slavery — disappears.

“It will be great,” she says, “if we can take it off.” •

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org