Inventing tradition

mousseShavuot is for many a forgotten holiday. If you are not observant, it most likely isn’t on your radar. You might forget shul altogether. You may go to work. If you’re a bit more tuned in, you might eat cheesecake. But I’m guessing that would be it.

I don’t remember doing anything special for Shavuot growing up; well, maybe my mom made blintzes.

So how did Shavuot, which begins on June 7 this year (6 Sivan by the Hebrew calendar), come to loom large for my family now? Simple answer: Dessert.

For the past several years, we’ve been hosting a dairy dessert party on one of the days of the holiday. From the minute Passover finishes (and sometimes before), my kids begin scouring cookbooks for cookies, mousses, cakes, cupcakes, brownies and, yes, cheesecakes that we should serve on the holiday. You could say, a recipe considered each day is our way of counting the omer, but more on that in a bit.

Martha Stewart’s lemon mousse, anyone? How about Sabra-chocolate cheesecake, or white chocolate and raspberry brownies? Me? I’m partial to the simple butter cookies. The recipe, given to me by an old friend, was from her Viennese grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who used to bake them for us. They were not much bigger than pennies, but they were simple, rich and divine.

I love to bake. I always have, but the summer after my freshman year in college, back in Dallas, I was bored and not so happy, I began methodically working my way through “Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts,” which my aunt had bestowed upon my chocoholic father as something of a joke.

Ever since, I’ve been thoroughly into creating in sugar and flour. At the same time, I take a very dim view of pareve baking. It’s just no fun when there’s no cream or butter involved. That richness of taste and the amazing mouth feel of full-fat fare cannot be beat, my apologies to the lactose intolerant and allergic among you.

So most of the year, obviously, I am not, in my mind, living up to my baking potential when I cook for Shabbat and other holidays. If meat is being served, dessert definitely plays second fiddle, so much so, that I often just pick up dessert from the Challah Fairy, unless I decide to crack open that incredible take on all that’s pareve, “Kosher Baking,” by Paula Shoyer.

So several years ago, I decided to flex my Rose Levy Beranbaum — “The Cake Bible” — muscles and turn Shavuot, that holiday dedicated to dairy, into a dessert party. What better way to work through my milchig madness than to dedicate the day to it?

I’m sure this is not what Moses had in mind when he was standing at Sinai receiving the Torah. But it gets me and my kids psyched up about the holiday.

But just how did the holiday where God gave the Torah to Moses atop Mt. Sinai become beside the point for so many Jews? Shouldn’t it be front and center in our observances? If this is the day on which we celebrate becoming Jews, essentially, when we agree to take on observing mitzvot, why is it not THE holiday?

Why do Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach get top billing for those of us not raised frum? I’d venture that even Sukkot and Simchat Torah, because of their proximity to the other fall holidays loom larger in most secular Jews’ minds than does the holiday of Shavuot.

Shavuot means “weeks” and refers to the seven weeks we’re now observing, of counting the omer, which began on the second night of Pesach. During the period bracketed by Pesach and Shavuot, we count the omer, literally, “a measure,” which was an offering of the first of the new grain that our forbears would bring each day for 49 days to the Temple in Jerusalem. Today we still count the omer, which was a measure of barley but is now a more abstract count. In fact, I have an app on my iPhone to keep track of it — of course.

Shavuot in the Torah is not connected to the revelation at Sinai. It is an agricultural holiday, one of the three regalim, along with Sukkot and Pesach, in which our ancestors would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The holiday marked the end of the grain harvest and marking the beginning of a new agricultural season, in which first fruits were brought to the Temple during a period that stretched from Shavuot to Sukkot.

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. there was no place in which to park the meaning of Shavuot. Pesach and Sukkot had ways in which we could recreate and relive the events it described and are rife with symbolism; we have seders and we build sukkot for this purpose. Scholars speculate that at this point, Shavout, became tied to receiving the law and the omer period connected it to Pesach, and our freedom from slavery.

The time is supposed to be one of both reflection and anticipation; we look back on our enslavement in Egypt and subsequent liberation, while looking forward to the true liberation of receiving the commandments. (Anyone who has ever engaged in a modicum of Pesach cleaning, feel free to offer an explanation on how being commanded makes me free.)

The omer itself is a semi-mourning period, without weddings, haircuts or live music. The origins for this are murky but most fall back on the explanation that it was to mark a plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s students. On Lag B’Omer we celebrate, with some lifting the mourning restrictions for the day and others altogether for the remainder of the period. Small children are often given a bow and arrow to play with on that day; and some scholars find a connection to May Day celebrations.

We end the period celebrating Shavuot, in which we eat dairy and read the Book of Ruth. In reading Ruth we find the story of a woman who makes a choice to become one of us; to convert and live as we live. Ruth’s decision to go with her mother-in-law, Naomi, though she has no obligation to do so, may be one of the most moving passages in our liturgy. It is the story of reinvention and acceptance.

The dairy tradition, though, is custom, with no clear answer as to why. It is said to stem from the Israelites receiving the laws of kashrut and realizing their pots were not kosher, so they ate uncooked dairy. Go figure.

In my house, we build in a certain amount of our own anticipation. I often come home from work to find my kids perusing “Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your Mouth Cookies” by Alice Medrich (a birthday gift to me from them, hint, hint.) or watching a cooking program on their computers. With barely a glance they greet me with, “Hey mom, maybe we should make [fill in the blank] for Shavuot.”

And maybe we do. It might be a far cry from anticipating the revelation at Sinai. It may not be what the rabbis had in mind. It’s preparation, of a sort, but I’d be hard pressed to say it’s for our spiritual betterment.

On the other hand, it has definitely put Shavuot on the map for us. And we await it as much as we do our seders or building our Sukkah. As far as traditions go, celebrating with family and friends, I’d say it rates right up there.

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