Beyond Belief: Shavuot

Beyond Belief: Shavuot

Heather L. Wood

There were very few religious occasions in my childhood, but there were rites of passage. One was my 13th birthday, on which I was finally allowed by my film-rating-observant mother to see a PG-13 movie: Fried Green Tomatoes starring Jessica Tandy, Kathy Bates, Mary Stuart Masterson and Mary Louise Parker.

Parker, pregnant and imprisoned in her home by a terrifying husband, sends her best friend the only thing she thinks he won’t bother to intercept: an excerpt from the Bible. Nothing is visible on the page but the famous words of the Moabite widow Ruth: “Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you: for where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge: your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” But before slipping it into an envelope from her home in Valdosta, Ga., Ruth Jamison lightly underlines the part about "lodging," and Idgy (Stuart Masterson) shows up the next day, packs her up and takes her home.

I haven’t seen the movie in a while, but I’ll never forget it. On a Friday night in seventh grade, it showed me my first vivid images of racism, brutality, segregation, alcoholism, adultery and domestic violence. I felt like a real grown-up watching it in the theater, a woman with knowledge of the dark side of life. I loved doe-eyed, open-mouthed Ruth - and because of her I always had a soft spot for the Biblical protagonist for whom she was named. To this day, that passage from the Book of Ruth is the only part of the Bible I can recite by heart. But I can do it. All 38 words!

So I was feeling pretty confident when I showed up to interview Rabbi Barnett Brickner of Alameda’s Temple Israel to talk about Shavuot, a Jewish holiday in which Ruth figures prominently. I was all set with a list of questions that would show off my familiarity with the lesser-known Jewish festivals, quickly distinguishing me from the larger, clueless Gentile public.

Brickner has been rabbi at Temple Israel for less than a year, after many years in the same position at a synagogue in Columbus, Ohio by the same name. Alameda’s first Jewish temple was founded in 1896, when “The First Hebrew Congregation” was formed on the corner of Bay and Lincoln streets. But the group disbanded a few years later, and no consistent organized Jewish presence existed on the Island until 1918. That year, approximately 14 families got together to form the predecessor of what is now Temple Israel. In 2020, the congregation will celebrate its 100th anniversary.

About two minutes into coffee with Rabbi Brickner, I cringingly realized that the holiday I thought I knew about was actually Sukkot, a completely different occasion celebrated for a different reason during a different time of year. Oops.

I knew less than nothing about Shavuot, the actual subject of the interview. Thankfully there WAS a rabbi at my table, so I sat back and sheepishly munched a bagel while he filled me in.

Shavuot means "weeks" and refers to the Jewish festival marking the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Like many other Jewish holidays, it began as an ancient agricultural festival, marking the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest.

Celebrants on Shavuot do read the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of the first “Jew by choice.” Another tradition includes Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an annual all-night Torah study session that reaffirms commitment to learning the sacred text. Traditionally, dairy dishes are served on Shavuot to symbolize the "land of milk and honey" and a return to childhood nourishment and rebirth.

Rabbi Brickner believes that Shavuot is important “because it's the moment when God no longer appeared to a chosen few, but made the Divine presence known to all the world. It is the moment when spirituality and history merged and the purpose of our being was lifted to global, if not cosmic, spiritual meaning.

"From that moment all life was intertwined, webbed, related to one another, in sacred covenant with God. The message of spiritual solidarity and communal responsibility that Shavuot brings to us, in these times, is one that is worthy of all our attention,” he said.

So Shavuot is a big deal, but I’m not the only person who has a lot to learn about it.

“I've always thought it It's ironic that, at least in modern Jewish circles, Shavuot is the least familiar and least observed of the three Biblical Festivals,” said Brickner. “After all, it is the time of our celebrating the receiving of the gift of Torah, our most sacred and treasured possession. The Torah is at the center of all Jewish life. So why isn't this festival given more attention?”

Brickner surmised that unlike Sukkot and Passover, festivals he describes as “tactile and physical,” Shavuot is more conceptual. “It's easy for people to relate to Sukkot and Passover, because what we are to do is clearly spelled out, and, at the end of the day, we can see the results of our labor,” he explained.

“That's not the case with Shavuot. On Shavuot we celebrate the receiving of God's words, and we're asked to spend the day reflecting on what they are really asking of us. For most people, that's an unfamiliar request,” he said.

Temple Israel will celebrate Shavuot with a simple dairy lunch and a recital of the Yizkor, a memorial service for the departed; information on Shavuot services is here. I’m going to celebrate it by reading the Book of Ruth and thinking about the concept of outsiders, insiders and community. I like it when people remind me how much I don’t know.