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Last Friday night, I watched as my kids lit Shabbat candles and said the prayers at our table with my in-laws standing by. My partner’s parents are not Jewish, and I felt a deep appreciation for them in this moment. When we all met, none of us could have imagined this scene. Nearly two decades ago, I stayed at their home for the first time. My partner and I were graduate students on the East Coast and we headed west to see her folks at their ranch in central Oregon over break. Like many people, Jewish or not, they really aren’t into religion at all. Here we were, a rabbinical student and a PhD candidate in religious studies. We pretty much ate, drank and breathed religion.
I wanted to be careful not to overwhelm them with Jewish talk or Jewish practice. That was tough because I was starting to observe Shabbat and other rituals for the first time. I chose carefully which ones I absolutely had to do. One of my new, favorite Shabbat rituals was baking challah. As Friday morning rolled around, it felt strange not to make it. I started to get the ingredients out, and the implications ran through my mind:
1) This kitchen is going to be really, really messy.
2) It would feel weird to me if we ate challah on Friday night without saying the prayer over it. But saying it will feel really weird too.
3) Oh no…it will feel weird to do the prayer over the bread without doing all three Shabbat blessings. Now it’s a full ceremony and it’s going to be awkward.
In the end, I did it anyway. The result? Wow, these people love challah. I know most people like it. What’s not to like? My recipe includes eggs, flour and tons of sugar and butter which make it more like a Shabbat dessert. It’s always a crowd pleaser. But I have never seen anyone so overtaken by it. Seeing how excited her parents were and knowing how worried I was about engaging in Jewish ritual in their house, my partner made sure they knew that getting to the challah meant that there would be Jewish prayers at their table. For people who really disagree with religion as a whole, don’t believe in the God we are thanking in these prayers and have no context for the foreign language being spoken at their table, this could have been a huge deal.
It’s been almost two decades, and I’m still making challah for my in-laws. Now when we visit, our kids help bake and decorate. We do the entire Shabbat ceremony consisting of all three prayers: lighting candles, saying kiddush over wine and grape juice and the motsi over the challah, my partner’s parents stand by, knowing that challah is coming.
I am greatly appreciative that my in-laws have been able to witness our family’s rituals and other religious choices. Clearly, some of these rituals have been easier to stomach than others. My mother-in-law enjoys the challah far more than she did the bris (then again, I’m with her on that one). It’s not easy when your kids choose a lifestyle so different from your own. In one sense, I credit the challah. It was one of the first moments when we came together around a Jewish custom, and unlike lots of other Jewish foods that are acquired tastes, challah was the one that could allow them to see into a completely new religious framework and even allow for it to happen at their family table. In a way, it’s just bread. But “breaking bread” together is also the way people from many cultures have traditionally and symbolically expressed that they can cross a difficult boundary. So maybe it’s no accident that this openness was instigated by a couple of loaves of home-baked bread. But at a deeper level, I credit my in-laws for demonstrating incredible openness to new ideas and most of all, for embracing us. That, and helping me clean the kitchen.
Sweet Egg Bread (Challah)
5-6 cups of flour
On Shavuot, Jews celebrate Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah. If you didn’t grow up Jewish, or even if you did, you may not know much about Shavuot. Although Shavuot is one of the Shelosh Regalim (the three Pilgrimage Festivals), equal in importance to Passover and Sukkot, it’s less commonly celebrated than the other two holidays. Maybe this is because Shavuot doesn’t have a well-known home component, like the Passover Seder (celebrated by more Jews than almost any other Jewish ritual) or the sukkot (huts) some Jews build outside of their homes on Sukkot. Maybe it’s because Shavuot comes at the end of the school year, so even if you have kids in a Jewish preschool, religious school or day school, there’s not as much time available in the curriculum to focus on Shavuot. Whatever the reason, I for one would love to see a change, and for more people to learn about Shavuot, and celebrate the holiday in meaningful ways.
In that spirit, as Shavuot approaches, I have seven suggestions for how to make the holiday more meaningful. Why seven? Because Shavuot marks the fiftieth day after the start of the counting of the Omer. (We begin counting the Omer, which links Passover to Shavuot, on the second night of Passover.) Shavuot (which means “weeks” in Hebrew) marks the completion of counting seven weeks of seven days.
1. Read the Book of Ruth. Traditionally, the Biblical Book of Ruth is read in synagogues on Shavuot. Ruth’s story is read on this holiday for several reasons:
a. The Book of Ruth describes the harvest season and Shavuot is also known as Hag HaKatsir, the Harvest Festival.
b. On Shavuot, when Jews celebrate God’s giving—and the Jewish people’s accepting—the Torah, we read of Ruth’s willingly entering into the Jewish faith and thus, according to Jewish understanding, a life of Torah.
c. The end of the Book of Ruth describes the lineage of King David, who is Ruth’s great-grandson. According to Jewish tradition, King David was born and died on Shavuot.
Even if you don’t go to services on Shavuot, you can read and discuss the story of Ruth with family members or friends. Ruth is often celebrated as the first Jew by Choice, but as I argue in my recent blog, I think she really should be celebrated as a woman in an interfaith marriage who helps to ensure the Jewish future.
2. Study the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are traditionally read from the Torah at Shavuot services. Take time to read the Ten Commandments and learn about them. If you have younger kids, your family can decide what Ten Commandments/Rules should be followed in your home. Older kids and adults can discuss how they feel about posting the Ten Commandments in public places such as court houses. Click here to read the position the Anti-Defamation League took on this issue in 2005.
3. Attend a Tikkun Leil Shavuot. There’s a wonderful custom of staying up all (or part of) the first night of Shavuot to study Torah. One of my personal favorite Shavuot experiences was when I was living in Jerusalem and I spent all night learning at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot and then at sunrise walked with the rest of the people attending the Tikkun to the Kotel for the morning service.
Look online to see if a synagogue or other Jewish organization near you is having a Tikkun. Or host your own Tikkun and invite friends over to study Torah.
4. Make (and eat!) Dairy Foods. It’s customary to eat dairy foods like cheesecake and cheese-filled blintzes on Shavuot. Some say that this is because the Bible compares Torah to “honey and milk…under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11). Another explanation is that when the Israelites received the Torah and learned for the first time the laws for keeping kosher, they didn’t have time right away to prepare kosher meat. In order not to eat meat that wasn’t kosher, they ate dairy. And so, on Shavuot, when the Giving of the Torah is celebrated, many Jews eat dairy in commemoration of how the Israelites ate when they first received the Torah.
In keeping with the tradition of eating dairy on Shavuot, after dinner on Shavuot I like to put out different flavors of ice cream and bowls with all kinds of toppings for everyone in my family to make their own ice cream sundae. My kids love doing this—and so do I!
5. Bake a Special Challah. Even those familiar with the braided challot for Shabbat and the round challot traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah may not be aware of the tradition of having specially shaped challot for Shavuot. This Shavuot, bake a challah in the shape of the Ten Commandments, as mentioned above, or in the shape of a Heavenly Ladder, a Torah or Mount Sinai (where God gave the Torah to Moses). To learn how to make these challot click here.
6. If You Have Young Children, Read Books Related to Shavuot: Check out PJ Library for a list of Shavuot books.
7. Attend a Shavuot Service. In Israel and most Reform and Reconstructionist congregations outside of Israel, Shavuot is observed for one day. In Orthodox and most Conservative congregations outside of Israel, Shavuot is observed for two days. In many congregations, Confirmation (a group ceremony, generally at the end of tenth grade, celebrating the completion of a religious curriculum) is celebrated on Shavuot. Not only is Shavuot near the end of the school year, but the association of Shavuot with the Giving of Torah is thematically connected to the study of Torah acknowledged at Confirmation as well as the idea of students committing themselves to a life of Torah. You can look at the websites of local synagogues to find out when their Shavuot services are being held.
Chag Sameach! Have a happy holiday!
What memories do you have of growing up? How did your family celebrate holidays?
My favorite holiday has always been Passover. While I was growing up, my parents hosted the Passover Seder for the extended family. We’d add tables, outgrowing the dining room and “kids’ table” until we had a series of three tables spanning the dining room, entry way and into the living room. My aunts, uncles and cousins would all come to our house for a few days and we’d celebrate Passover.
Living in Northern California, we did not have an abundance of kosher-for-Passover options. Luckily, my aunts would buy out all the markets in Los Angeles and bring delicacies with them that would last throughout the week of Passover.
After the crowds left, my mom would make matzo meal pancakes. Light and fluffy, made mostly of egg whites and air, they were my favorite (probably because I ate them with tablespoons of white sugar on top).
It wasn’t until a month ago that I learned where the matzo meal pancake recipe came from. I should have known that my mom’s mom was not the source. My grandmother was raised Mormon and converted to Judaism before marrying my grandfather. They raised three wonderful Jewish children and always had a Jewish household (see nature vs. nurture).
During summer break, while my mother was in high school, she traveled to Indianapolis to visit my father for a weekend while he was working there for the summer. At that time, not yet married, it was not “appropriate” for them to stay under the same roof, so while he was living with his cousins, my mother stayed with my father’s grandmother.
One morning, my great-grandmother made the pancakes for my mom. Mom immediately fell in love with them. My great-grandmother’s recipe has been a family treasure ever since.
InterfaithFamily is here to help families discover long-lost family recipes and traditions, to create your own traditions and to help you explore what aspects of Judaism you want to incorporate into your lives as you create new traditions for your family.
In the Bay Area, newlyweds and nearly-wedded couples can begin this process by joining us for our Love and Religion – Online workshop which begins July 29.