Anybody can be the big cheese on Shavuot —you just have to be a little creative. Dairy foods are traditional on the holiday, with cheesecake topping the list of everyone’s favorite Shavuot dessert. If you want to win friends and impress your neighbors, try hosting a top-your-own cheesecake party, with jam and fresh fruit and whipped cream and nuts and chocolate and butterscotch sauce and ice cream all in little bowls for each guest to help him or herself. If it sounds like fun, that’s because this holiday, while extremely important (Shavuot marks the time God gave the law to the Jewish people), also is quite unusual for a number of reasons. It means lots of dairy foods (that’s right — a Jewish holiday without chicken!), staying up all night and even a touch of mystery, like perhaps the opening of the entire world (see number three below). This year, Shavuot begins Thursday evening, June 8. Here are some ways to help you prepare for, and celebrate, the holiday.
1. Read All About It
While most people are more than familiar with those famous two tablets, in fact these comprise just ten of the mitzvot (commandments) God gave the Jewish people. This Shavuot, why not take a look at all 613 and try observing just one more? It doesn’t have to be the most difficult; you may even find one that you enjoy, or are amazed by, or want to research further. Consider the following mitzvot
a) A Jew may not curse a judge, ruler or another Jew.
b) A Jew may not break his or her word.
c) Jews may not deceive anyone in business.
d) Jews are forbidden from ignoring a lost object, which must be returned to its owner.
e) A Jew may not return to Egypt to make it his permanent residence.
f) A Jew must believe in God’s existence.
2. At the Soda Counter
Virtually every Jewish holiday involves a seudah, or festive meal, and that means meat. Shavuot is the exception. Why? There are several theories as to why it’s preferable to dine on dairy dishes during this holiday. One reason is that the Torah is compared to milk, in Song of Songs 4:11. For a fun treat on Shavuot afternoon, why not host an old-fashioned soda shop party? The following recipes are from a cookbook, published in 1940, made specifically for owners of soda fountains and luncheonettes.
COLA MALTED MILK
Into shaker draw 1 to 1-1/2 oz. chocolate syrup; add 3 soda spoons of malted milk, small scoop ice cream and milk. Mix well. Top off on inside of glass with whipped cream.
GRAPE JUICE MILK SHAKE
Into shaker put 5-oz. cold milk and 5-oz. grape juice, 1/2 oz. Lemon syrup, some cracked ice, and shake vigorously. Strain into a 12-oz.glass and garnish with a cube of pineapple, 1 red cherry and 1/2 orange slice. Serve with straws.
CHOCOLATE PEANUT SHAKE
Into a shaker draw 1-1/2 oz. chocolate syrup, add 1/2 oz. of peanut butter, a little fine ice, and nearly fill with cold milk. Shake vigorously. Strain into a 12-oz. glass, and top with a small portion of vanilla ice cream. Serve with a spoon.
3. See the World
One of the nicest stories about Shavuot holds that the heavens open at midnight on this day, and so it becomes possible to see the whole universe. You may not make it that late (and you may not want your children to), but it makes for a great topic of conversation. Before dinner, set the mood by decorating your dining room ceiling with glow-in-the-dark stars (available at craft and discount shops), then ask family members what they think they would see if the heavens did indeed open.
4. Flower Power
Tradition says that Mt. Sinai was once covered with greenery, which is one reason we decorate our homes with beautiful flowers on Shavuot. (Another says that this holiday is when all trees are judged). Why not challenge children to create their own beautiful flowers. Because children have such extraordinary imaginations, they will welcome the opportunity to make roses and lilies of the valley out of anything—from string, to plastic that shrinks when placed in the oven, to tiny bits of rice they can paint. Or, just cut out strips of construction papers, or have them find treasures in the backyard they can use to create lovely flowers.
5. A Taste of Honey
Long ago, children often would begin their Jewish study on Shavuot. As a way to make this even sweeter, the teacher would place a bit of honey on the book, which the child could then taste. Maybe this is a time you would like to begin learning a bit more—whether it’s the Tanach—an acronym for Torah Nuvim and Ketuvim—Torah, Prophets and Writing—or a new Jewish text, or a book about Jewish history you always meant to read. To make your studies sweet, design your own book cover, then prepare your own, unique honey. Just buy unflavored honey at the store and add a taste of your choice. Here are some ideas:
blackberry, blueberry or raspberry juice
a drop of lime juice
Enjoy your honey with bread as you begin learning.
6. Good Things Come in Three
Mystics, and those who believe in the power of numbers, take special note of the number three on this holiday. First, of course, is the fact that the Tanach comprises three books. Then there’s the three groups of Jewish people —the priests, the Levites and Yisrael—the Israelites. Moses was the third son. Think of great threes in your life. Maybe it involves a birthday, a number of children, an address, or the date of an important occasion.
7. It’s In the Cards
At Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday, stores of all kinds are filled to the brim with greeting cards—while on Shavuot, an important Jewish holiday, you would be hard pressed to find a single card in any commercial store. Why not make your own? While sending greeting cards is not a Jewish tradition, it can be fun to remember friends and family far away. One way to make a beautiful (and appropriate) card is to press flowers, then use them to decorate a piece of construction paper.
It’s best to start with small (but not too small! About the size of a violet is good) and soft flowers; beginners should NOT try to press anything too thick. You can buy a flower press, or simply place your finds between paper towels, topped by a sheet of white typing or wax paper, between several heavy books. Lay the flowers out carefully before shutting the books, then do not open for at least a week. Don’t forget to try leaves and bits of grass, as well. While many flora and fauna will retain their lovely colors for years to come, it’s best to press more flowers than you think you will need as some do not dry well. When you’re done, you can use any white glue (not paste; dried flowers are delicate) to attach your dried flowers to paper. Or, if you prefer, you can use the flowers to make place mats or bookmarks.
8. The Night is Young
Many Jewish men and women like to stay up all night learning on Shavuot. Yet even the greatest insomniac attending the most fascinating lecture may find herself nodding off a bit when it comes to the 2-4 A.M. stretch. If someone you know is planning to stay up all night, why not prepare him or her a bag to help when the times get a little challenging? You could put in a packet of instant (caffeine filled) coffee, along with a bar of chocolate (most chocolate has lots of caffeine), a moist towelette to wipe the face.
9. It’s Curtains !
This is a wonderful project that children (and even adults) of all ages will really enjoy —and it costs next to nothing. All you need is a fairly clean, white sheet (you can find these for a song at thrift and discount shops) and felt-tip markers. Give all the artists a marker (BE CAREFUL WHERE YOU DO THIS PROJECT as ink can seep through the sheet; either place newspapers beneath or do this outside on an old table). Invite them to draw holiday designs—flowers, the shape of the Ten Commandments, a cheesecake—on the sheet. When they’re done, toss the sheet over a large window for a beautiful and original Shavuot decoration.
10. Shiny, Happy Vases
There’s not much that children love more than arts and crafts. Gather all kinds of tidbits —leftover bits of felt, rhinestones, broken bits of jewelry, ribbon, pieces of pasta—and give children some glue and an old jar (or one of those vases that once held flowers you received as a gift —you know have millions of them). Let them decorate a lovely vase for Shavuot flowers.
Elizabeth Applebaum is a writer based in Michigan. She wrote this article for the on-line magazine Jewish Family & Life—www.JewishFamily.com