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Cheesecake and Jerusalem: Let’s share a slice of both

We Jews must stop allowing bitterness and division to creep into Jewish life, and turn our attention to the many common values that connect us
We've got something to go with that slice of cheesecake. (Blake Ezra)

Food has always been a unifying force for Jews, and the upcoming holiday of Shavuot is no different. Many of us will be celebrating over a piece (or two) of cheesecake — so much so that Ta’am, one of our member organisations at Jewish Futures, has come up with seemingly 70 different variations over the last few weeks, much to the delight of viewers worldwide.

No matter our differing customs, and whether it’s a piece of cheesecake or any other tradition-rich foods, “al ta’am v’reiach, ein l’hitvakeiach” — regarding taste and smell, there seems to be no argument. But as we debate whether or not to have another celebratory slice, there’s something else that unites us — albeit a bit different in appearance this year.

Normally, at dawn on Shavuot, tens of thousands of Jewish people from around the world throng past our Jerusalem home, passing through the winding alleys of the Old City to the Kotel, the Western Wall.

It’s noisy all night, but we love it. It’s been a 2,000 year trek, but at times some of the nightmares along the journey dissolve into the waking reality of our millennial dreams.

The current pandemic has forced world Jewry to stay home this year, and I’ll miss everything about this spectacle, even the excited multilingual chatter outside our front door.

Apart from cheesecake, this is what Shavuot and Jerusalem are all about for me.

Jerusalem has 70 names, according to tradition, reflecting the diversity of the individuals and groupings that make up Am Yisrael and how they relate to the city.

Likewise the Torah, the centerpiece of our heritage, the receiving of which we relive on Shavuot, is said to have 70 faces. We relate to the Torah in numerous ways, each of us at times, connecting to different facets and explanations thereof.

The Kabbalah also cites the number 70, saying there are 70 “root souls.” As such there are 70 pathways to viewing and understanding Torah, as there are 70 perspectives as each of us, from diverse viewpoints, faces Jerusalem.

In short, the Shavuot-dawn sight of thousands passing our home is a highlight of my year. They come from many different communities, but are united by their desire to spend the night studying our heritage before heading to the Kotel. Torah and Jerusalem have an age-old power to bring us together.

Jews of all persuasions at the Kotel. (Government Press Office (Israel) (Creative Commons)).

In fact, the experience does more than unite us; it transforms us. When we gather here, within the walls of Jerusalem, we have licence to let our guard down, form deep connections with one another, and to the Torah that Jerusalem represents.

It’s part of a process that we can call “chibur” — the forging of real and deep connections, running through the concentric circles that represent the structure of our social interactions. Jerusalem is like a mirror. It makes us look deeply at ourselves, as we intensify our relationship with God and create new connections with other Jewish people.

This has always been a characteristic of our convergence around and towards the epicenter and focal point of Jewish life — Jerusalem.

In ancient times, people headed to the city three times a year to see the most spectacular assembly of Jewish life. It was a massive event of festive atmosphere and joy. But they didn’t just come to see, they also came to be seen.

The Torah chooses an interesting word when issuing the instruction to visit Jerusalem for the festivals — “yeraeh” — which means to be seen. One didn’t fulfill this ancient rite by simply attending and observing; its greatness resulted from everyone participating and personally presenting themselves before their Creator.

Just seeing the spectacle wasn’t enough. You had to to be seen, to allow yourself to be  vulnerable before God, and by extension before your fellow man. Seeing others is predicated on having the courage to allow others to see us.

One of the most exhilarating things about modern Jerusalem is the way it’s revived Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals as occasions when large numbers normally converge on this place.

This year, the festival comes in the shadow of COVID-19 and the international visitors will be almost entirely absent. While the sadness isn’t, of course, on the same scale as the events that the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) commemorates, namely the destruction of ancient Jerusalem, its opening line rings true for today: “How does the city sit solitary, that was so full of people?”

But also at times like these, when people are looking towards and thinking of Jerusalem from afar, we’re reminded that diversity and unity aren’t clashing values, but rather two sides of the same coin.

Consider the Talmud (Brachot 30a), which tells us to face Jerusalem when we pray, and then spends many seemingly unnecessary lines explaining how to do so from geographically disparate places.

All roads lead to and from Jerusalem (Creative Commons Zero – CC0).

These lines weren’t needed for practical purposes, but rather to make a crucial and timeless point: The Talmud was giving explicit recognition to how far-flung the Jewish people were, and how they all looked longingly towards Jerusalem and the values it represents each, quite literally, with a different perspective.

The Talmud could have just told everyone to face the same point on the map, but instead it legitimizes the different perspectives that necessarily exist across the Jewish world. The beauty of Jerusalem is that it embraces many different Jewish subcultures, outlooks and customs, reflecting the richness and breadth of development of authentic Jewish communities over a 2,000 year journey home.

It did this back in the day, when the different tribes arrived in the city, each feeling their own deep unique connection. It does this in contemporary times, as a magnet for world Jewry; and today too, even as we’re in pandemic mode and when Jews around the world can’t physically visit, we are all still able to face the city and imbibe these messages.

How powerful that, as many synagogues around the world are still shut because of coronavirus, causing large numbers to sorely miss their communal connections over Shavuot, we are all facing precisely the same place. Even as many people are at the most isolated they’ve ever been, praying alone from gardens, porches and dining room tables, this ancient tradition gives us a way to mark Shavuot as it was marked at Mount Sinai — “ke-ish echad be-lev echad,” “like one person with one heart.”

As we all face the same direction, with a cup of coffee and a slice of cheesecake, let’s take a moment to ask why, when we’re connected by so many common values, we often allow so much bitterness and division to creep into Jewish life.

As we all face the same direction, let’s consider why we talk so much at Shavuot about the ideal of feeling like “one people with one heart,” but don’t do enough to make it a reality. We can all take simple steps to build unity by seeing the good in our fellow Jews, as I mentioned in a recent column.

As we all face the same direction, let’s think about how the historic assembly in Jerusalem required people to be seen, with all the vulnerability that it involves, and that this was the premise on which we built authentic connections with each other and with God.

Many of us, after weeks in isolation, are experiencing once again the joy of gathering with others. If we can’t get to Jerusalem for the festival, let’s still put a little of the spirit of Jerusalem’s Shavuot into our first post-coronavirus interactions. May they be characterized by real connections, just enough vulnerability, and plenty of ahavat Yisrael, love of our fellow Jews.

About the Author
Rabbi Naftali Schiff is the Founder and CEO of Jewish Futures, a diverse family of non-profit educational organisations each addressing a specific need and niche. These include JRoots, GIFT, Aish UK, Chazak, Chazon, Shelanu, Ta’am, Time4Torah, Legacy Live, Aleinu, and the Forum for Jewish Leadership. Jewish Futures is committed to creating and implementing far reaching solutions that will realise the vision of a brighter Jewish future. Naftali studied Economics and International Relations at the London School of Economics, received Rabbinic ordination from the Israel and Jerusalem Rabbinate and Diploma of Education from Israel Ministry of Education. He served in the IDF Givati Infantry unit and is a founding board member of Loving World and a number of philanthropic foundations.
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