This evening marks the beginning of Shavuot, kind of wallflower Jewish holiday that always seems to get a bit lost as the school years ends.
It’s actually a nice little “jewbilee,” even for us do-it-yourself Jews who don’t like rituals that require cleaning out every closet in the house with a toothbrush or swinging live chickens. Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah to our man Moses on Mt. Sinai, seven weeks after our peeps got the hell outta
Dodge Egypt so many centuries ago. It evolved into late spring harvest festival at the big ol’ temple King Solomon built; however, once all the Jews dispersed all over the planet like dandelion spores, it’s been known as the Rodney Dangerfield of Jewish holidays.
It really should be a big deal for the Abrahamic religions since that’s when the Ten Commandments came down, but here in America, it’s still gets no respect. Tablet‘s Marissa Brostoff explores why such an important holiday gets the shaft and how some synagogues are selling Shavuot to the next generation. Some hipsters have started hosting super cool all-nighters — hilarious comedian Sandra Bernhard headlines this year in San Francisco! — and I love the idea of bringing a cow to shul for the kids to milk to connect the tradition of serving dairy deliciousness.
Shavuot is generally celebrated some late-night study with the rabbis, a reading of the Book of Ruth, putting a vase of pretty flowers on the table and — get this — eating cheesecake. I don’t even remember Shavout growing up Reform in Arizona, but this explains my deep obsession for creamy sweet softness in a graham cracker crust — it’s rooted in my DNA.
Lip-smacking aside, Shavuot also features one of my favorite Torah tales, one of the few starring women with a speaking role. The Book of Ruth takes place during a time of famine, when Jewish mother Naomi has to move to Moab with her husband, who promptly dies. Her sons marry outside the Tribe, then they die. Noami is left with her shiksa daughters-in-laws, Orpah and Ruth, who she tries to convince to go back to their own people. Orpah does leave, but Ruth stays, giving one of the most beautiful speeches any Jewish mother wants to hear:
Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God.
Ruth becomes the first “righteous convert” to Judaism, not necessarily out of love for God, but out of love for Naomi. (Writer David Plotz does an amazing theological/social interpretation of her choice in this piece on Slate.com.)
I relate to Ruth’s decision to stay with Naomi on a personal level. As some of you know, my mother-in-law, once a brilliant and kind lady, has deteriorated these last few years at the unmerciful hands of dementia. We still lived in California when she was diagnosed with cancer before that, and she pooh-poohed us when we offered to come and comfort her. “You guys just take care of the baby. I’ll be fine,” she’d say. She never, ever would have asked us to move back to Savannah to help her and my father-in-law get used to the rotten inevitability of this disease. I don’t know how helpful we actually are, but we did come. Not out of obligation or guilt, but out of love.
So you see, like Ruth, I did convert. Yes, I’m already Jewish, but I love my mother-in-law so much I became SOUTHERN, y’all.
Heheheh. I’d love to tell you I’ll be davening tonight and stuffing my face with cheese blintzes at synagogue. Instead, I’ll be celebrating the handing down of a different, much less significant-to-anyone-but-me type of scroll – a certificate that says I’ve been voted “Best Local Blogger” by the readers of Connect Savannah. I’m still shocked by the honor — there aren’t enough Jews in Savannah to lobby for this, so apparently some of you are just here for the food.
I promise to catch up on Torah study tomorrow with a big fat slice of blueberry cheesecake.
I’ll be attending services and study at my shul this evening — I’ve been promised that cheesecake will play a prominent role in the evening’s study and festivities! Chag Sameach.
I love the lesson Plotz takes from the Ruth story, that religion thrives on relationships, not theology. I wish more of the OJs in charge of conversion would reconcile themselves to this fact and work on improving their relationships with other Jews.
Two quibbles: (1) The Torah was dafka NOT given to Moses, but rather to the entire nation, who, the midrash says, accepted it “as one person, with one heart.” Very significant.
(2) Ruth wasn’t the first convert — Abraham himself was a convert of sorts and there are plenty of other people who joined the Jewish people throughout the Torah before we became a nation. (Tzippora and Joseph’s wife both pop to mind immediately.) Plus, all of the midrashim describe Abraham and Sarah as running an evangelist center (the tent that was open to all sides, etc.). Ruth’s story is particularly compelling because she was a princess and when her husband died, she certainly could have gone home and enjoyed a fine life with her family, but she chose to go–in poverty and uncertainty–with Naomi. And–controversially, in his time–ended up being the forebear of King David.
Do you think that its step-child status might have to do with the traditional understanding of Shavuos as being the giving of the LAW (since that’s what the traditional understanding of the Torah is), and that since most American Jews/ movements don’t feel bound by Jewish law, they therefore aren’t that into it?
I don’t get it — it’s one of the three main pilgrimage holidays and, therefore, more important than any other holidays that everyone fusses over, except the other two pilgrimage holidays (again, less relevant to most American Jews since they don’t ascribe modern religious significance to the Temple and its associated tasks) and RH/YK. I just don’t get it.
Even for people who identify strongly as cultural Jews, if not traditionally religious ones, this holiday commemorates us becoming a nation,a people (and, therefore, a culture) — so why wouldn’t it be significant?
I don’t even remember learning about it as a kid either — neither at our synagogue (which, we must admit, had rather a poor supplemental Jewish education program nor at the (nominally conservative) Jewish day school I attended for half of elementary school.
Jew Crew T-shirt Wearin’ One: To answer your question, I think it could be that Shavuot’s “step-child” status is related to American Jews lackadaisical approach to the LAWS of the Torah regarding the Temple tasks. You’re right – even us lazy Jews still get hyped for Rosh Hashanah and Passover. I don’t know what happened in our childhoods, but here in Savannah there was a children’s service at the Reform synagogue (though I find that these tend to be so dumbed down that my kids are bored to tears.) So maybe it’s catching on culturally – maybe it’s the cheescake. I’m wondering why the Christians don’t get more excited about it…
Evangelicals and others interested in the Jewish roots of Christianity do – they call it “Pentecost.”
(In fact, Pentecostals are so-called because they believe that early Christians “speaking in tongues” were able to effect conversions of massive numbers of Jews who had come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem at Shavuot/Pentecost. I don’t know when this was – very early on, since the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD and the historical Jesus had died some 40 years before that.)
It wouldn’t make a lot of sense for other Christians to, though (the ones who hold by replacement theology, which is hostile to Judaism) since they believe that the brit between Gd and the Jewish people formalized at Mt. Sinai was negated–along with the laws given there–by Jesus.
As I understand it, one of normative Christianity’s fundamental tenets is that a relationship with Jesus (the definition of which varies based on denomination) replaced the need for individuals to follow the laws given at Mt. Sinai. Belief/faith is central to them in the way that ritual/observance is to traditional Judaism. Big, big difference.
Interesting – have you thought about becoming a rabba ;)?
Do you think American culture’s emphasis on belief and faith (be it denominational or not) is the root of American Judaism’s relaxed approach to ritual and its demands?
In re rabba: Um, no.
Well, it’s all my fault. I did my best getting you and your brother to Hebrew school and Jewish summer camps, considering I never stepped into a synagogue until the day I married. I even attended a Baptist camp, thanks to your eccentric bohemian grandparents. But I got one thing right: we served lots of cheesecake with graham cracker crusts! I made them myself with evaporated milk and let them set in the refrigerator and then smothered them with blueberries and strawberries. Until I learned about calorie counting and pants that wouldn’t close…
I make an AMAZING pareve (non-dairy) cheesecake for Shavuot. Although a traditionally dairy holiday, my husband enjoys meat foods over yom tov. So we have dairy lunches and meat dinners as a compromise.
But regardless on Shavuot one must have cheesecake… DAIRY or NOT!