My first experience with writing liturgy came when I was in college. A group of women gathered in a dorm room where we argued passionately over words and metaphors. The question was how to retell the Passover story -- the central narrative at the heart of Jewish peoplehood -- in a way that would speak to us.
What were the critical pieces of the original haggadah text that we wanted to preserve? Where did we want to make radical changes? How would those radical changes sit with us, year after year? One year we excised all of the God-as-king language, preferring instead to use feminine God-language in both Hebrew and English. Another year, we shifted all of the language of sovereignty to metaphors that reflected immanent power rather than transcendence: instead of King or Queen we wanted to celebrate our source, wellspring, creator.
The Williams College Feminist Seder Project is only a memory now. The college community there doesn't feel the need for a specifically "feminist" seder anymore... though I'll bet the standard seder they do there now is still shaped by the ripples my era of students set in motion. (That's how it goes with third-wave feminism.) But the work of creating my own Passover seder has shaped the way I think about Pesach, and about liturgical language, and about creativity, and about my place within the broader sphere of Jewish life.
I'm grateful to the women of the Williams College Feminist Seder Project, because they taught me how to take up the tools of transformation in my own liturgical life. Transforming the text of that beloved ritual was transformative for me.
In the years after college, I didn't belong to a congregation. I hadn't yet found Jewish Renewal, and my dreams of the rabbinate seemed improbable at best. But I wanted a connection with Judaism.
Because the feminist seder project had been so formative for me, I tried my hand at writing other pieces of liturgy. I wrote a seder for Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. I wrote prayers for Sukkot and for Chanukah. I wrote, and then performed, a baby-naming ceremony for the son of two dear friends. When my sister became pregnant with her second child, she asked if I would write and perform a baby-naming for him, too.
Writing my own prayers and ceremonies helped me feel engaged. I was shaping my own quirky, idiosyncratic Judaism. I started writing about the fact that I was doing that, and encouraging other unaffiliated Jews -- other Jews on the fringes: intermarried folks, queer folks, those who didn't have a congregational home or who felt that there might not be a place at the Jewish table for them -- to write their own liturgies and prayers, too.
I took my MFA at Bennington. At the end of my time there, one of my beloved advisors (the poet David Lehman) suggested that I try my hand at writing prayers and psalms. Although I'd thought I was keeping my Jewish self and my writerly self somewhat separate, he saw right through that flimsy divide.
Active Jewishness is a writerly thing. We're obsessed with texts, and our tradition includes the strong expectation that each of us will be in conversation with those texts all our lives. Sometimes that conversation takes highly creative forms, so there's a sense that creativity is a legitimate way to respond to the texts we hold dear. All of this was fermenting in me in 1999, the year I was first introduced to fanfiction and fanvids: transformative works of a different kind.