ENCINO, Calif. (May. 18)
Three thousand years ago, we would be preparing to sacrifice seven unblemished lambs, a young bullock and two rams.
Instead, today, my two younger sons and I are in the kitchen, preparing a double batch of cheese blintzes.
We’re engaged in a modern version of a burnt offering — sacrificing our cholesterol counts, our clean kitchen counters and my initially serene countenance as we begin gathering the ingredients and cooking implements.
It’s the holiday of Shavuot, the festival of the first fruits. It’s also the time of the giving of the Torah. Leave it to the ancient rabbis, in an original twist of Jewish geography, to conveniently and illogically conclude that both events occurred on the sixth day of Sivan, on the Hebrew calendar.
Yes, Jewish farmers brought their sacrificial offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem on the exact anniversary of the day that the Israelites, under the leadership of Moses, received the Ten Commandments at Mt Sinai.
And yes, we can commemorate both events by eating cheese blintzes.
Eating dairy is traditional on Shavuot. Some say it’s because Israel is the land of milk and honey. Others say it’s in honor of the laws of kashrut, which were part of the Sinai revelation. And others maintain that dairy foods, which are usually white, symbolize the purity of the Torah.
For these reasons and more, our blintz brigade gets to work. We mix the batter in the KitchenAid, watching bits of eggshell drop into the bowl and clouds of flour fly out of the bowl. We then prepare the filling, blending cream cheese, cottage cheese, butter, eggs, sugar and cinnamon. We bring both bowls to the stove, and our assembly line leaps into action.
Danny, 7, is the boss of the batter. He stands on a step stool at the side of the stove. Careful and conscientious, he measures out a scant quarter-cup. “Is this the right amount?” he asks, awaiting confirmation before pouring it into the well-worn skillet.
I quickly twist the pan, trying to spread the batter evenly onto the sides and into a perfect circle. I am not a cook. In fact, cooking, in my opinion, is another way to relive my Jewish heritage — as a slave.
But for holidays, especially those with sacrificial overtones, I overcome this aversion to provide my children with meaningful gastronomic memories.
Jeremy, my speedy and efficient 9-year-old, is the blintz filler and folder. He taps his fingers impatiently, watching the pancake slowly turn golden. I flip it onto a plate, and he immediately spoons out some white filling. He dips his fingers in ice water, to keep from burning them on the still steaming pancake, and quickly assembles the blintz. He wipes his greasy fingers on a dish towel and waits for the next pancake.
The rolled, elongated blintzes are supposed to resemble the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. Not ours. No matter how thick or thin our batter, or how hard we try to roll perfect cylinders, we succeed in making only squat, square blintzes.
Square blintzes, however, are also appropriate. After all, during that auspicious encounter at Mt. Sinai, we received not only the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments but also the entire written Torah. And it’s that Torah, the flat Five Books of Moses, that our blintzes resemble.
The Torah, the spiritual foundation of Judaism, is handed down from generation to generation. In fact, God promises to pass it down to the thousandth generation. The children are the guarantors, promising God that their parents will teach them the Torah.
Blintzes, a culinary foundation of Judaism, are also handed down from generation to generation. My sons constitute the fourth generation for our family recipe, which has traveled from my grandmother’s home in Bar, Ukraine, to Rock Island, III., to Encino, Calif. My grandmother changed the original recipe only slightly, substituting cottage cheese for hoop cheese and adding cream cheese.
The rabbis taught that the sixth of Sivan is as important as the day of creation itself. They believed that without moral laws and a spiritual presence in our lives, our material world lacks meaning. This is why we are obligated to teach our children Torah.
This duty is especially crucial in today’s world, where Nike’s call to “Just Do It” takes precedence over “Do Unto Others.” Where the song “I Feel Good” is more familiar than the words “I Feel God.” Where the bottom line of economics supersedes the higher authority of ethics.
At the same time, we are also obligated to teach our children how to make cheese blintzes. For in addition to filling their need for spirituality and sublimity, we must also fill their need for family rituals and observances. Judaism is an experiential religion. That’s why I have blintz batter caked on my stove burners and buttery fingerprints covering all reachable surfaces of my kitchen.
That’s also why we build huts for Sukkot, fry latkes on Chanukah and celebrate the seder at Passover. Some people also practice Tikkun I’el Shavuot, staying up all night on Shavuot studying Jewish texts, preparing to symbolically stand at Sinai.
In one of Judaism’s most famous stories, a certain heathen comes to Hillel and says, “Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot.” Hillel answers, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”
Shavuot reminds us to go and learn Torah. It also reminds us to make and enjoy cheese blintzes.
Mary Snyder’s Cheese Blintzes
4 eggs, well beaten
1 cup shifted flour
1 tsp. salt
1 cup milk
11/2 cups cottage cheese
12 oz. cream cheese
2 egg yolks
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. cinnamon
Add flour, salt and milk to eggs, mixing well. Heat heavy 6-inch skillet until water dropped on skillet “dances.” Butter lightly, then pour in only enough batter to cover bottom of skillet. Cook until bubbly and lightly browned. Turn onto board — or table-top covered with clean dishtowel — browned-side up. Repeat until all batter has been used, lightly buttering skillet for each pancake.
Blend together cheeses, egg yolks, butter, sugar and cinnamon. Mix well. Place teaspoonful of cheese mixture on each pancake. Roll up and turn ends in. Fry in hot butter until golden brown on all sides. Or place in greased baking pan; bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned. Serve hot with sour cream. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar, if desired. Makes about 10 blintzes.