Do Jews celebrate more holidays and commemorations than other people/religions? Wasn’t Passover a month and-a-half ago? Yom HaShoah a month ago? Israel Memorial and Independence Days three weeks ago? And OMG, here we are again! Days away from Shavuot. It’s a frantic holiday pace, each one serving as a memory refresher, reminding us of who we are, what we’ve endured, and how to celebrate. Shavuot toes the line, recalling our commitment made at Mount Sinai. Yet, as a children’s book author, researcher, former blogger of Jewish holiday customs, and grandparent, I see another memory side of Shavuot, one that all of us can build on.
Years ago I discovered and blogged about a little known Shavuot custom dating back to the 19th century: making paper cuts to stick on windows. In a typical display of Jewish resourcefulness, Eastern European Yeshiva students created Shavuoslekh — Shavuot paper cuts to decorate their homes. They called them “roiselekh,” small roses/flowers, serving as wonderful substitutions for the fresh foliage Shavuot decorations seen in locations across the globe with more gracious growing climates.
A lover of crafts, I was charmed by the idea and stored it in one of my memory drawers. Eight years later, husband and wife author team Allison and Wayne Marks wrote a delightful picture book entitled The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story. It tells the tale of a young girl named Shoshana, who learns about the tradition of making paper cuts from her wise and patient grandmother, owner of a treasure-filled cabinet with all types of objects used for different art projects. Pieces of paper were among the “goodies,” far from special in Shoshana’s eyes. Yet, through her grandmother’s gentle guidance, a blank sheet is transformed into a wondrous paper cut featuring birds and a Star of David, showing Shoshana that beauty can be found in the simplest of objects.
This book perfectly matched who I was at that point in my life: a grandmother of two small grandchildren. The oldest exhibited an artistic bent matching mine. His little sister tried to mimic everything he did. Creating something new with them was part of our routine whenever we spent time together. With my husband chuckling as I spread arts & crafts paraphernalia on our table, I would always insist “I’m not just creating with them. I’m building memories.”
In fact, when I asked Allison and Wayne what inspired them to write The Art Lesson, a combination of factors, including a memory path was revealed. At the time they wrote the book, their twins were taking art lessons from Wayne’s father, an artist and children’s book author in his own right. “We would see their joy as they brought back the results of each lesson,” explained Wayne, adding that today they’re adults and they “still talk about those magical afternoons spent with their grandfather.”
I identify. While our grandchildren are older, I see smiles on their faces every time they look at artwork they created when they were smaller, proudly displayed in our home. As for today, I am building memories matching the stage they’re in. Typically Jewish? Hey, going down memory lane is in our DNA. How we package it is up to us. Certainly, creating lasting holiday customs is part of it. As a curator of these customs, I can affirm that many times they begin within the nuclear family. Then word-of-mouth comes into play and the custom spreads — throughout the extended family, throughout the neighborhood, and even further out….
So, as we enter the Shavuot holiday period, let’s carefully think about the takeaway memories our children and grandchildren will have. Do you have a special family custom? Do you cook together? Create together? Whatever you do, make it memorable.
P.S. Want a clear, step-by-step papercut lesson? I found this for you.