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Tears Amid the Alien Corn
A holiday post
Today is the start of Memorial Day weekend for America, a time of cookouts and car sales and patriotic flag-waving. But at the moment, in the nation-within-a-nation of my Jewish life, I’m commemorating something else entirely. Today is the start the Shavuot, the “Feast of Weeks,” and I am spending it with religiously observant family members, celebrating. One of three annual holidays in which ancient Jews made the pilgrimage to the Holy Temple to sacrifice bullocks, pigeons, fruits, et cetera, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah, the importance of conversion, and the late spring harvest through the consumption of an enormous amount of cheesecake. So—rather than focusing on sandwiches, like most Fridays—I will be contemplating the revelation of Moses from within a protective bubble of lactose flatulence.
On this holiday, we read the book of Ruth, which contains this lovely and tender passage involving a widow’s daughter-in-law’s undying devotion:
And Ruth said: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”
Later this fervency gets subverted into a heavily implied sex-for-grain scheme involving foot washing. We’ve always been a practical people.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
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Shavuot is a strange holiday. In addition to reading the archetypal conversion story, we also conclude a seven-week period of ritual counting that roughly coincides with the Christian Pentecost. We celebrate the Revelation of the Torah, and we do so by consuming towering Mount Sinais of cheese blintzes. Without giving my location away, in the heavily Jewish suburb where I’m staying, the Trader Joe’s dairy aisle looked like a tornado had struck it; only goat’s milk remained.
The ubiquitousness of dairy in Shavuot celebrations remains a bit of a puzzler—check this article out for a dizzying array of explanations ranging from milk and honey to historical tribal practices to post-Talmudic apologia—but one thing is for certain: I bought a kosher blueberry cheesecake from a very good bakery, and I will delight in a slice, and proclaim the experience divine in every sense. Who says God doesn't move in mysterious wheys?
If you want to replicate this experience, check out Smitten Kitchen’s excellent New York Cheesecake here. See you all next Tuesday.