An orange antipasto salad, called insalata di arance in Italian, isn’t just a fun, tasty and fat-free way of getting a little tipsy. This mezze, which I call “Boozy Sicilian Orange Salad,” is a unique way of putting lots of Passover symbolism on the table.
No one really knows where the custom of putting an orange on the seder plate to honor the place of women in Judaism, which dates back some 25 years, began. Some say it began with a male rabbi who said, “There’s as much place for a woman on the bimah [synagogue pulpit] as there is for a orange on the seder plate.” According to the 1996 Ma’yan Haggadah, since then, some Jews have placed an orange on their seder plates to assert symbolically that women and their wisdom are forever fruitful, much like an orange, and deserve to be at the center of Jewish life and practice.
It is this version that first began to appear in mainstream haggadot. Another story dates back to a 1979 session on women and Jewish law at the Jewish Women’s Group at the University of California Berkeley Hillel, led by the rebbetzin of the campus Chabad house. One student asked the rebbetzin for her opinion about the place of lesbians in Judaism. The rebbetzin suggested that lesbianism was a transgression, like eating bread during Passover. In response, some people began to put bread on their seder plate in solidarity with lesbians; however, many, like Susanna Heschel, the daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel, felt uncomfortable with the idea of bread on a seder plate, so a tangerine or orange became the chosen symbolic fruit.
For me, the orange, and especially this orange salad, has other symbolism, too. How can we discuss oranges without mentioning Israel’s famous Jaffa orange? It is said that orange exporting in Israel dates back to the Arab conquerors in the seventh century, who imported the first orange trees to Jaffa, but it was really the Shamouti orange (later known as the Jaffa orange), developed by Arab farmers in the mid-19th century, that really took off, thanks to its protective but easy-to-peel skin, minimal number of seeds and sweet flavor.
On the eve of World War II, there were close to 75,000 acres of orange groves throughout Mandatory Palestine. A key symbol of Israel in the 1950s and ‘60s, the orange saw a decline toward the end of the century, as other industries in Israel gained momentum, but today Israel remains a top exporter of citrus, especially to Europe.
This orange salad, with its bold flavor, reminds me of the selection of fresh salads that are an integral part of Israeli breakfast buffets, especially on kibbutzim and at hotels. Pomegranates add a particularly Israeli touch (Next year in Jerusalem, right?), and the olive oil—from the olive branch—stands for peace.
Finally, the salad, like everyone at the table, gets its own generous serving of wine.