Barry Newman

Making Shavuot into Something More than Just Cheesecake

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In one of the earlier jobs I had as a young adult, my supervisor Dave was a Jewish fellow who had very little knowledge of the requirements or traditions of Judaism. It soon became apparent that, despite the fact that he lived and worked in New York City, I was the first religious Jew he ever had any real contact with. I found myself, therefore, walking a very tricky path during the time we worked together, for the last thing I wanted to do was create a “holier than thou” barrier between us. No small challenge, believe me.

I had to, for example, patiently explain why it was necessary to leave the office early on Fridays during the winter months, and that pork products were not the only factor in determining if something is kosher. He knew of the high holy days and understood that I would be taking vacation on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but though he was vaguely aware that shortly after Yom Kippur something involving “wooden tents” would be taking place, he was surprised that I would be taking several days off for the holiday of Sukkot as well. And while he told me that he participated in family Passover seders as a child, he confessed that he no longer did. Why he felt compelled to describe how matzah upset his digestive system I never figured out.

What I found most disturbing, however, was that he knew nothing whatsoever of Shavuot and was more than a little annoyed that I would be taking two days off during a particularly busy period. He was able to relate to the motifs of the other holidays – the shofar, the fasting, the “tents”, the seder – and accepted my explanation that they were special days in the Jewish calendar during which the usual manner of work was forbidden. What, he not unreasonably wanted to know, made Shavuot so special?

Dave, unfortunately, is by no means unique. Most unaffiliated Jews in the diaspora – that is, Jews who not regularly attend a synagogue or temple, or who do not belong to a Jewish community center – have little more than a distant recollection of Shavuot, something perhaps their grandparents mentioned in passing at one time or another. Unlike the other holidays and festivals that are observed during the year, Shavuot requires no special preparation, nor does it demand any major change or disruption to our day-to-day lives, other than the usual obligations and restrictions that are part of every holiday. Even the very welcome tradition of enjoying cheesecake and other dairy-based delicacies is, for the most part, observed by the religious community only. It is a holiday that, though sad to say, remains anonymously on the sidelines for most Jews throughout the world.

I’ve often wondered why both religious and secular Jewish leadership never embraced the problem of making Shavuot more alluring or, to be blunt, “sexy”. There are, to be sure, a number of features to the holiday that could easily have been elevated into customs appropriate for both adults and children. Granted, these may not have the same level of sanctity as practices which are prescribed by biblical or rabbinic authority, but surely there would be general acceptance to adopt some new approaches in order to raise the awareness of Shavuot outside of Israel.

For example, the prevailing opinion as to why dairy products are eaten on the holiday is in recognition of the laws of kashrut found in the Torah newly received on Shavuot that Moses and his followers were suddenly faced with. Meat was no longer something that could simply be shot and roasted, so we turn to lasagna and blitzes to share with our ancestors that new awareness. But aren’t we talking, really, about a celebration of veganism? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to arrange a Shavuot “seder” of vegan delights to be enjoyed as part of the holiday meal? A collection of relevant verses or poetry can be compiled to complement the treats that were most likely the diet that was adopted until the laws of slaughter and meat consumption were defined and codified.

There is, moreover, probably no limit to the number of commentaries that have been written on the fact that Shavuot is the one holiday or festival for which no specific date has been designated. As legislated in the Torah, we are obligated to count the Omer beginning the first night after the first day of Passover for a full seven-week, forty-nine-day period. In the evening ending the forty-ninth day is when Shavuot is celebrated. This very important ritual – which basically links Passover to Shavuot – deserves a greater level of acknowledgement than the fifty or sixty seconds it takes to do the count each evening. We might, for example, complement the daily counting by collecting each evening a token amount of money that would, on the day preceding Shavuot, be offered as a charitable contribution. A truly winning and worthy way to prepare for the holiday.

And surely there could be a more meaningful way to honor the ten commandments that forms the core of the Torah reading for the holiday. That Moses descended from the mountain bearing stone tablets on which these ten were engraved make them somewhat more noteworthy than the other six-hundred-and-three. Here again, during a Shavuot “seder” there could be discussion on why G-d selected these specific commandments much in the same way as the ten plagues are counted down and discussed during the Passover seder.

There is truly no reason for Shavuot to remain in the periphery. Here in Israel, it is, of course, a national holiday so even the non-observant are cognizant of the meaning and customs of the day. Abroad, however, non observant Jews have no reminders of the upcoming holiday, so for them Shavuot is no different than any other day – work, school and shopping. A way must be found to convey the significance of the day and how it is part of the Jewish calendrical cycle. Somehow, Jewish communities outside of Israel must be made aware that it is on this holiday that we emulate the anticipation of receiving the Torah by staying up all night and learning, and how on this day we honor the commitment of our converts by reciting the inspiring tale of Ruth and her devotion to Judaism.

A start would be to introduce new ways to prepare for and celebrate Shavuot. The holiday makes no demand that we build and sleep in “wooden tents” or spend weeks ridding our homes of chametz, but surely we can find innovative ways to remind the Jewish world – including my former boss Dave – of Shavuot and it’s cause for celebration.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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