WHITEFISH - No one expected the orange.
It just sat there round and silent, but brightly, conspicuously, some might even say optimistically, an enigmatic splash of color against the muddy drab of early spring.
Everything else on the plate had its proper place: the roasted egg, the parsley, the chopped apples and bitter herbs, all ceremonial requirements for this traditional Jewish feast.
But a fat tropical orange surely has no place at a Passover seder, this April celebration of Jewish exodus from Egypt and slavery.
Or does it?
"A long time ago," Rabbi Allen Secher said in that deep and resonant rumble of his, "an Orthodox Jew told me a woman has as much chance of reading from the Torah as an orange has of appearing on the seder plate."
And so Secher put an orange on the plate, has been putting oranges on the plate ever since - literally, figuratively, doggedly, with an unbendable persistence that has earned him both a reputation and a following.
"If I had the biggest problem in the world, he's the one I'd want to go to," said Gina Nelson, a member of Secher's Whitefish flock. "He's just your all-purpose solution."
Secher is, in fact, Montana's all-purpose Jewish solution, the state's only full-time resident rabbi.
But before he took on that role, before he spun Sinatra on the radio, before he won his Emmy awards and played semi-pro soccer and marched with the Freedom Riders through the South, joining Martin Luther King Jr. on the streets and in the jails, before he went kosher south of the border, before he walked the
death camps at Auschwitz, Allen Secher was one heck of a golfer.
"I was a golf nut," Secher said. And by the time he hit his early teens, he was pretty good, too, shooting in the mid- to low 80s, "not bad for a kid in 1950. This was my talent."
But when it came time to try out for the high school team, well, seems that wasn't an option in that tiny town tucked into west-central Pennsylvania.
"The clubhouse was restricted," he said. "No Jews allowed. That was a defining moment."
A moment, it turns out, among many moments. Secher's hometown was not known for embracing the world in all its wonderful diversity.
Fathers told their daughters not to date the Jewish boy. His sister's prom date - son of the high school guidance counselor - canceled just before the dance. Seems her father wouldn't allow it. And Secher almost died as a child when his appendix burst, but the Catholic hospital would not admit him.
"I can't tell you how many times as a little kid my head busted open with 'Jew bastard' on the other side of the rock," Secher said. "That town was anti-Semitic squared."
His family wasn't rich or anything - "I was born in 1935, in the Depression, and dad did what work he could to stay alive." That despite his father's master's degree in social work from Columbia University.
But neither was the family poor. By the time Secher was bounced from the golf team, his dad was set up in the wholesale food business, and his folks had even started a community theater in town.
It's not as if they were a bunch of rabble-rousers from the wrong side of the tracks. They were just Jewish, "and that brought out some very strong emotions from the people there. My god, I hated the smallness of that town."
Some might have retreated into a xenophobic shell of their own, returning in kind what they were receiving.
But not Secher.
Secher put an orange on the table.
Secher keeps an orange on the seder plate to recognize women's influence in the faith.
Ina Secher watched her husband work the Passover crowd, his close-cropped hair peeking out from a festive rainbow yarmulke, face fringed in a neatly trimmed beard more salt than pepper.
"The four most important words of the seder," he said, "are 'when Š do Š we Š eat!' Sometime before midnight, I promise you, sometime before midnight."
Then he led the gathering in song, new words for a familiar tune - "Take me out to the seder," he calls it.
"Feed me on matzo and chicken legs, I don't care for the hard-boiled eggs. Š And it's root, root, root for Elijah Š"
"This is the year when the Cubs win the pennant!" Secher cried when the song wound down.
Secher reels them in, and a bunch of them aren't even Jewish.
"He can traverse the spectrum from the spiritual to the entertaining," Nelson said, "and both are important. He's the great includer. He's fun and he's spiritual and he's scholarly."
"He's one of the kindest people you'll ever meet," wife Ina said. "He's kind, he's sensitive, he has more integrity than anyone I know. And he's very, very perceptive."
Secher's rich voice rolls like a saltwater wave deep over the grit of sandy bottoms, at once smooth and rough, resonant and resolute, spinning the tale of Jewish enslavement and the troubled flight from Egypt.
"That," Secher said, "was long ago and far away."
But if you consider historic Egypt as an analogy for what the rabbi calls "the narrow places in your life," then you can imagine your own personal migration out of the slavery those small spaces impose.
"Ahh," he says, "then it has a whole new meaning."
Belief, Secher insists, must have new meaning, must be relevant, must be active in the world.
This prayer was written, quite likely, long ago for Russian Jews. But today there are Jews in Iraq, Jews in Iran. In Egypt, the pharaohs; in Germany, the camps; in Russia, in Israel, in Iraq and Iran, in the past and in the present.
People are hungry now as they were then, he says. The plagues of beasts and boils and locusts and darkness are alive in today's plagues of AIDS and West Nile and global warming.
Secher rumbles through the seder, skipping whole pages, spinning stories, singing songs in Hebrew ("Thanks to God there's only one more to go!")
And all the while people chat and clatter and wander about. The celebration is held together loosely, at best, yet never spins apart. By not demanding a strict order, Secher maintains an order all his own. No one crosses the line, wherever that is.
"That's a huge part of who he is," Ina says, "accepting everyone and helping people integrate."
"There was a time," Allen Secher said, "when I was not very flexible."
He was new to rabbinic study, new to the campus of Brandeis University - the only non-sectarian Jewish-sponsored college in the nation - new to the influence of "all those progressive East Coast Jews."
Secher studied philosophy and Judaic history, and his was an intellectual blossoming, rather than a spiritual one.
"If there ever was a 'calling,' " he said, "then I wasn't passing a phone booth when it rang."
The closest thing he found to a calling was a newfound love of soccer, which he had never played. Soon, though, he was a regular on the field for Brandeis, which welcomed him onto the green.
His classmates welcomed him, too, twice electing the emerging activist to student government.
But back on campus, while all those other students were feeling their freedom, Secher consciously reined his in. He became strictly Orthodox, "because I thought that's what a rabbi should do."
He lived the strict life of the ascetic, adhering closely to the literal faith, "until the middle of my senior year. I suddenly thought, this is craziness. I don't believe in this. I was doing it because I thought it was what a rabbi should do, but I didn't believe in it. This wasn't what it means to be a Jew."
And so he ordered himself a decidedly non-kosher hamburger and proceeded to get drunk.
"I didn't want to be a rabbi," Secher said, "so I kept getting drunk."
His campus mentor turned him around, eventually, by insisting Secher continue his studies. "He also gave me a very good piece of advice. 'The time will come when you have a choice, whether to buy a book or eat lunch. Buy the book, Mr. Secher; you can always eat lunch.' "
It was, quite literally, sobering.
At year's end, after graduation, Secher went to enroll at the Conservative seminary, one notch down from the Orthodox life he'd been living. But they wanted him to sign a pledge, a statement that he was a loyal adherent to the Sabbath, that he said daily prayers, that he celebrated the high holidays and was kosher.
"I am all of those things," he told them, "but it's not your right to tell me I have to be. That's my choice."
They insisted he sign, so Secher went on down the street and enrolled in the Reform seminary.
"It was liberal," he said, "but with a lot of tradition hanging around."
Just like his first congregation up in New York, right on Long Island.
Secher holds a loose grip on the recent gathering for Passover with a combination of traditional teaching and a good measure of entertainment.
It was 1962, August, and newly minted Rabbi Secher hadn't preached his first sermon to that first congregation when the phone rang. It was Martin Luther King Jr., wanting the young rabbi to join a group of clergy marching in Albany, Ga.
"We met at a church in Harlem," Secher said, "and I thought … what if I get mugged? Wouldn't that be ironic, to get mugged in Harlem on your way to a civil rights demonstration?"
But, he said, "there was not a moment's hesitancy on my part about what to do. I knew, this is what has to be done."
And so he and four rabbis drove through the night, all the way to Georgia, where King himself schooled them in the art of nonviolent resistance.
The next morning, 60 clergy held a prayer service on the courthouse steps. All were arrested.
"At least we had integrated the jail," Secher laughs. But the next day, the white clergy were transferred out to a new jail, 32 men in a cell built for four.
When he was released a week later, he, like the others, was covered in lice.
Secher returned to that new congregation the conquering hero, but when he tried to rally members there to stand up against housing discrimination in their own backyard, they balked. They told him activism wasn't his job. His job, they said, was to teach right from wrong.
And so "I called the rabbinic placement organization and said, 'Get me out.' "
Out landed Secher amid a gringo congregation in Mexico City, where he spent the next three years.
"But it was a time of upheaval," Secher said, "and I'm always anxious to be a part of what's going on in the world. In Mexico, they say 'you can demonstrate - we're a free country. Just know we're going to shoot you.' "
So he traveled back to the states in June of 1964, to a rabbinic convention in Atlantic City. While there, Dr. King called again, rallying a demonstration in St. Augustine, Fla.
Of the 800 rabbis present for the convention, only 11 joined, including Secher.
"That was probably the beginning of my disillusionment," he said, "when I started saying, 'What the hell good is preaching doing if the preachers won't even act on their own words?' These were just pious platitudes."
And so he marched, hand in hand with a young black woman, singing the song "We Shall Overcome" while the Florida locals and National Guard looked on nervously, down a street where an activist had been shot the night before.
"It was the scariest two hours of my life," he said, "but it was right. It's as simple as that. It's a just cause. It was right."
Again, Secher was arrested with King, again he watched guards beat peaceful protesters with cattle prods, again the lice.
He never told them about it when he got back to Mexico - "the gringos there wouldn't care" - but he did put in for a transfer, leaving Mexico for California where he could at least stay connected and active.
Beginning in 1966, those California sermons were a huge hit, blended with dance and jazz and Judaism, interspersed with rallies, marching with migrant workers, with anyone really, who'd ever been kicked off the golf greens.
"You know," Secher told a class at Whitefish High the morning after the seder, "we have more coyotes here than we have Jews."
And in this class, only one kid is left-handed. His name is Max.
"Max. That's a Jewish name, you know," Secher says. "Now I want everyone to stare at Max. Max is different, isn't he?"
They stare. Max fidgets.
"Left-handers are weird - call him that, call him weird. Call him strange. Max is different. He's dangerous. Follow him. Report on him. See those keys on his hip? Those are for his vault. It's full of money. Max and his left-handed friends control all the money."
Six million Jews - might as well have been left-handers, Secher says - died in the Holocaust. A million and a half of those were kids under age 15. Just like these kids.
"You, you, you," he points, "every single one of you. Dead. Gone. Every single person in Whitefish, and in Kalispell, and in Missoula and Billings and Bozeman. Gone. All the people in Montana and Wyoming and Utah. Gone. And why?
"Because they were left-handed, or because they were Jewish. Because they were different."
How could it happen? he asks. "Because they believed it can't happen here."
Which is precisely why Secher continues to fight.
"When times get tough," he said, "we always find ways to blame people. There's always a scapegoat. It's a way to take back your power by saying, 'I'm better than you. I know what's truth, and you don't. So I'm going to get rid of you.' "
In Germany, Secher said, "people chose to turn away. They chose to say, 'It's not me.' "
The world, he said, cannot afford that, not in Germany then or in Darfur today.
Truth, he said, is not a market that can be cornered.
Secher, arrested twice for protesting in support of equal rights for blacks, says marching with Martin Luther King Jr. was "the scariest two hours of my life, but it was right. It's a just cause. It was right."
"I was at this conference in 1970," Secher recalled, "and I looked around the room at all the rabbis. 'Is this what I'm going to be in 10 years? No way. I can't have it. I can't do it.' That was a Thursday. I resigned Sunday."
He couldn't do it, he said, because he couldn't bring himself to preach and point the finger.
"Preacher, minister, rabbi - you're called upon to be holy with a capital H," Secher said. "They put you on a pedestal, and after a while, you begin to believe it. The tone they adopt, that tone just drives me up a wall."
And so Secher - forever the Jew's Jew - reluctantly retired from rabbi work.
He dabbled in film, in recording, in telling the story of the Holocaust. Then, on a bus in Pittsburgh, Secher met an old rabbi friend, told him he really wanted to get into producing children's television. Just so happened the friend was on a search committee for a children's show in Chicago.
A full 10 years and seven Emmy awards later, Secher was still producing "The Magic Door" for CBS, as well as other film projects. The last two of those Emmy awards came for his documentary on the Auschwitz death camps.
"But once a rabbi, always a rabbi," or so Secher says. "In 1990, some Jewish friends came to me and said, 'We like where your head's at, spiritually.' "
They convinced him to organize a Friday night gathering. Then another. Then a couple times each month.
"By the end of the second year," Secher said, "I had to admit I was a rabbi again."
His new congregation gave him full control. "We did services in the round, we meditated. I was open to any kind of reaction."
And what he learned was that his style of Jewishness was not for everyone. But for many, it "filled a pretty powerful spiritual need."
He never preached. People interrupted. They carried on a dialogue. He passed the Torah to everyone, women and all. His message: "Deal with your narrow places, but I can't tell you what those are. You have to call that shot."
The congregation was a place "where your emotions could be whatever your emotions are, and that rarely happens."
He finally left there six years ago, to "refire" instead of retire, for a life in Montana because "it's paradise here. It's what God intended the Garden of Eden to be."
Secher is a hiking, biking, fly-fishing rabbi these days, although friends say he'd never let a hike get in the way of a good deli restaurant, kosher or otherwise. Once a week, he spins old tunes on his radio show, "Secher, Sinatra and Style." It's a throwback to his youth, when he badly wanted to be a disc jockey, not a rabbi, much to his mother's dismay.
Secher now lives in Whitefish, but conducts services in Bozeman - Montana has many miles between menorahs - specializing in integrating Jews and non-Jews, in inter-faith couples, in building bridges within families, within communities, across borders.
"That's where he shines," Nelson said. "With including everyone, with inter-faith marriages, with never excluding anyone. In his world, everyone's welcome and everyone's right."
Secher also sits on the Montana Human Rights Commission, adjudicating the grievances of those not allowed in today's country clubs - the poor and the gay and the Native American.
Because for Secher, history is not something that happened, it's something always happening, and he's here, right in the middle of
"I was in Auschwitz, filming, and it was late," Secher told the high school class. "Maybe midnight, maybe later. December. Very dark."
There were few lights, he said, "and you could barely see. All you could hear were our heels against the cobblestone."
The temperature had dropped, and a fog lifted off the stone, swirling around their knees as they waded through murk and gloom.
They were headed to the crematorium, to film the gas chambers downstairs.
"So we open the door, and there's no light down the stairs. The switch is at the bottom. It was dark dark."
Secher started down the steps, but partway to the bottom he spooked, turned back toward the door still open to the night.
"And I saw that fog sinking down the staircase, as if it were the gas creeping into the room.
"It doesn't get anymore powerful than that."
Because history is never over.
"Does it still happen?" he asked the students. "You betcha. Darfur? Somalia? All over again. It happens over and over and over again. The problem in the 1940s was the world stood still."
But there's an old saying: Sit still too long, and they'll cover you with rocks.
Which is precisely why Allen Secher, Montana's only resident rabbi, keeps an orange on the seder plate.
"You have to be able to forgive," he said. "But you cannot afford to forget."