On Shavuot, Spring and Cheesecake

Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks) gets short shrift in many non-Orthodox Jewish homes in America. In Reform congregations, it is usually the day when 10th graders have their Confirmation ceremony. Confirmation, you might ask? Sounds pretty Christian. In fact, dear readers, you are correct! The early European Reform movement introduced the Confirmation tradition in the early 19th century, believing that while the age of thirteen (for boys) and twelve (for girls) is traditionally the time when Jewish children become responsible for their religious lives, a few years more could really help with both the emotional and spiritual maturity needed for such a commitment. In fact, early Reformers did away with the traditional bar mitzvah ceremony altogether, preferring the more egalitarian and communal service over the individual celebration of Jewish boys becoming men.

But Jewish kids in white robes aside, what is Shavuot? Like most Jewish holidays it has both an agricultural and biblical significance. The former celebrates the early summer grain harvest and the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple (Shavuot is also called Hag ha Bikkurim, the Festival of the First Fruits).  And the latter? It’s actually religiously a pretty big deal. It commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (seven weeks after Passover). Seems important, no? Indeed, and it is one of the three pilgrimage festivals in Ancient Israel (including Sukkot and Passover). The festival is inextricably linked to Passover, as the Exodus from Egypt makes the Jewish people a nation and the receiving of the Law institutes the religious principles they should follow.

Shavuot is also a holiday that has a direct Christian counterpart. Unlike Hanukkah (which has both benefited and suffered from its arbitrary proximity to Christmas) or Passover (which has a direct, yet troubled, relationship with Easter), Shavuot has an equivalent in the Christian holiday of Pentecost. In fact, Shavuot is often referred to as Pentecost (Greek for “fifty” as in fifty days after the first seder). The Christian meaning and observance of this holiday is different, commemorating a moment described in Acts (2:1-31) when the Holy Spirit descended upon a group of Jesus’ followers (on Shavuot).

But somehow, unless you are Orthodox (or Israeli), the holiday has gone relatively unobserved for many American Jews. There are notable exceptions of course, but ask many Jewish college students today (as I have) what the holiday is about and you’ll get a bunch of blank stares. I, for one, blame Hebrew School. It’s not really Hebrew School’s fault, it’s just an accident of the calendar year. Shavuot often falls in late May or early June, usually around (or after) the last day of the Hebrew School year. Unlike other holidays which have plenty of time to be studied, Shavuot is either an afterthought or omitted from the program altogether (see the unfortunate summer scheduling of Tisha B’Av as another casualty of the Hebrew School year). My kids end religious school a full week before Shavuot this year.

The other reason that Shavuot may go unobserved is that unlike most Jewish holidays, the primary observance is in the synagogue. Practices include decorating the synagogue with greenery and flowers. The Book of Ruth is read, and some participate in an all-night Torah study session (Tikkun Leil Shavuot).


Unlike other more popularly observed holidays that have an important domestic component (the Passover seder, Hanukkah candle-lighting, the Rosh HaShanah meals), Shavuot—as observed in the diaspora—is a synagogue holiday. And, the majority of American Jews are unaffiliated. So, without a synagogue, or without the prompting of your elementary-school age child, the holiday goes unobserved.

That stops now. Why? Because Shavuot is the holiday when you are supposed to eat cheesecake! There are a variety of reasons why many Jewish communities embraced the consumption of dairy on Shavuot. Again, some are agricultural, some biblical and some mystical. In Song of Songs, the Torah is said to be “Like honey and milk, it lies under your tongue” and the Land of Israel as described as a land flowing with milk and honey. This “cheesecake holiday” was a revelation to me when I was visiting my family in Israel twenty years ago. Unlike in the United States, secular Jews in Israel have a cultural way of celebrating Shavuot. Much like Memorial Day has become an unofficial way of ushering in the summer by grilling out with friends, Shavuot—for those not engaged in all-night Torah study—an excuse to get together with family and friends and feast on dairy dishes such as cheesecake or blintzes. Cheese-filled kreplach or bourekas are also consumed.

So this year, Shavuot actually falls over Memorial Day weekend. The Culinary Converter and her family will likely be observing both a grill-fest in her backyard, as well as a dairy fiesta (probably not at the same time).


Shavuot Menu 2015:

Chilled Yogurt Soup

Pierogies w/sour cream

Big salad

Yogurt Cake

Chilled Yogurt Soup from Afarsimon

This is a recipe that I have been attempting to perfect only from memory. A few years ago, I managed to recreate a soup I had frequently at a Persian dairy restaurant in Tel Aviv. Alas, I don’t remember exactly what I did. The place, Afarsimon (translated as persimmon), was a daily morning hangout for my grandfather and his friends. They would sit and drink coffee, gossip and kvetch about politics. When I was little, I would go for the strawberry milkshakes. When I grew older, I would go for this garlicky yogurt soup. It’s been at least twenty years since I ate at Afarsimon, so my memory could be deceiving me. The restaurant, like my grandfather, is long gone. I can’t remember if there was toasted cumin in it or not, but I do believe it was served with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of paprika on top.

Anyway, I am going to try it this way and I’ll report back after the chag!

1 large English cucumber, or 5 persian cukes

2 cups plain yogurt. Greek is probably best, but you should use one with fat

2 crushed garlic cloves

juice of half a lemon

a few sprigs of mint, minced (another option is dill, but The Man is not a fan)

salt to taste

olive oil and paprika for garnish      

Peel the cucumber and grate. Salt and leave in a colander for a bit, allowing to drain.

Beat the yogurt with the garlic, lemon juice and the mint. Add the cucumber and mix well. Taste and add salt as preferred. If it’s too thick add a wee bit of water.

I can’t imagine this can’t be done in a blender, but I haven’t done it that way. Perhaps this is the year (now that the Vitamix has entered our lives, I am always looking for stuff to do in it).

Drizzle with olive oil and a sprinkle of paprika.

Turkish Yogurt Cake [adapted from Claudia Roden’s Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, & Lebanon (Knopf, 2008)]

4 large eggs, separated

½ cup superfine sugar

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 2/3 cups strained Greek-style yogurt

grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon

juice of 1 lemon 

Optional syrup

2/3 cup water

1 ¼ cups sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

grated zest of 1 unwaxed orange

Beat the yolks with the sugar until it is a thick and pale yellow cream. Beat in flour, yogurt, the lemon zest and juice until well blended.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff and carefully fold into the above mixture. Pour into a round (preferably non-stick) 9 inch baking tin greased with butter. Bake at 350° for 50 to 60 minutes until brown. It will puff up and then fall (don’t be alarmed).

Turn out onto serving plate (or if you use a tin w/removable bottom, release) and serve warm or cold.

If making the syrup, boil water, sugar, lemon juice and orange zest for 3-5 minutes. Cool and chill in refrigerator.

 serves 6



So, are you making/eating dairy for Shavuot?

(Also, you can drink dairy as well! See the Ramos Gin Fizz!)