On the eve of Shavuot this Sunday, Zizet and Shmuel Messalem will eat pkayla, a Tunisian stew of spinach, white beans and meat that’s cooked for hours until almost black. The stew is served ceremonially over couscous. It’s a delicacy they’ve served on Shavuot and special occasions for over 70 years, even before they moved from their native Tunisia to Israel in 1949.
But they’ll be eating this festive dish all alone.
None of their loving seven children, 24 grandchildren or 25 great-grandchildren will be joining the family patriarchs for the traditional meal marking the beginning of the religious holiday. Members of the younger generations, who all grew up in Israel, would rather celebrate Shavuot the way the rest of the country does: with cheesecakes, dairy kugels and rich cheese platters.
“Tunisian Jews never had milk or dairy products,” explains Chen Cohen, the Messalems’ granddaughter (Tunisian Jews say they do not eat “the white”). According to Zizet, the only milk that was available in Tunisia when she grew up there was what was known as “chalav nochri” – milk that was not supervised by the kashrut authority and was therefore off-limits to the Jewish community.
Other Jewish communities in North Africa also refrained from eating dairy products, but mainly because they only had one set of dishes and they were safeguarded for the meat meals. Dairy products were sometimes purchased from street vendors, but never cooked or consumed at home.
Instead, Shavuot meals in Jewish communities in the Middle East were known for their traditional meat and grain dishes, many carrying symbolic references to elements of the holiday – from meat stews to grains and baked goods.
Shavuot originated as an agricultural holiday, one of the three “pilgrimage festivals” (with Sukkot and Passover). During those festivals, Jews would gather at the Temple in Jerusalem, bringing their farm offerings.
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Shavuot, also known as the Festival of Reaping, marked the end of the 50-day period between the harvest of the barley at Passover and the harvest of wheat. As an offering, pilgrims would bring two loaves of bread from their wheat harvest to the Temple. A holiday of many names, Shavuot is also known as the Holiday of the First Fruit, since Jews would present the rabbis with a gift from the first of the harvest of the seven species of the land of Israel: pomegranate, olive, fig, grape, date, wheat and barley.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70, religious leaders sought to reassign a new meaning to Shavuot: they branded it a commemoration of receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai.
This new meaning – and the fact Shavuot coincides with the peak in cows’ milk production – paved the way for the Ashkenazi tradition of serving dairy dishes during the holiday. Some tie this custom to the phrase from Song of Songs 4:11, “Honey and milk are under thy tongue.”
There are many other explanations, most of them “retrofitted” to justify a tradition that came about naturally. For American Jews, most of whom are Ashkenazi, the tradition of serving dairy dishes for Shavuot has always been seen as a given.
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There were also other, less traditional reasons for turning Shavuot into the official dairy holiday of the Jewish people.
Fast-forward a couple of millennia to late-19th century Ottoman Palestine. The early Zionist settlers “decided to bring the state to the biblical era, to a society with biblical-style foods,” Yahil Zaban, a literature professor and food culture scholar, tells Haaretz. “There was a strong emphasis on the produce, fruit and vegetables of the land, and grains. Dairy products were important too, as in the ‘Land of Milk and Honey.’”
Most of the Zionists who settled Ottoman Palestine at the time were Ashkenazi. “Those Zionists came from a very secular background. They reconnected to the Land of Israel in the spirit of A.D. Gordon’s ‘new Jew,’ who has a healthy relationship with the land that surrounds him, who engages in productive labor,“ explains Prof. Nimrod Luz, head of the research authority at the Department of Land of Israel Studies at Kinneret College in the Galilee.
“The Israeli food industry discovered the commercial potential of the dairy products,” adds Zaban, “and from then on, the grains and fresh produce were forgotten.”
Israel’s Milk Council even came up with the cartoon figure of a fearless boy named Yoav Ben-Chalav (“Yoav Son-of-Milk”) who, just like Popeye with spinach, got his powers from drinking two cups of milk and successfully defeated scary terrorists and spooky thieves. “Milk became an ideological drink,” Luz notes.
The new “white holiday” was almost the complete opposite of the holiday celebrated by Zizet and Shmuel with their black pkayla, and very different from the way most Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews used to celebrate it in the Maghreb and Middle East.
For Libyan Jews, it wouldn’t be Shavuot without a large farina dumpling called bazeen, which represents Mount Sinai itself. It is served with meat in tomato sauce.
Many Sephardi Jews bake the traditional seven heavens challah (siete cielos challah), referring to the seven heavens of the universe mentioned in Jewish scripture. This tradition dates back to eighth-century Spain.
The challah’s shape – a large dome surrounded by seven rings of dough – symbolizes Mount Sinai and the clouds or heavens surrounding it. It is then decorated with symbols such as a ladder, Torah scrolls and birds.
Moroccan Jews crumble leftover matza from Passover into a glass of milk and honey, and eat it before the meal. This demonstrates the sweetness of the Torah as described in the Song of Songs.
Another baked tradition comes from Libya’s Jewish community: Parents would prepare a special necklace of cookies for each of their children. The cookies were shaped to resemble the tablets; a ladder for Moses to ascend the mountain; birds, as no bird chirped when Moses returned with the Torah; a palm-shaped hamsa complete with evil eye, for good luck; eyeglasses to read the torah, and backpacks to carry it to school. The cookies were threaded on a string and decorated with a painted eggshell and beads.
Chen Cohen recounts a Tunisian tradition called kliya (to toast, in Hebrew), where toasted flaxseed, chickpeas, lentils and barley are placed in a large bowl for the family to nosh on during the holiday. The tradition may be connected to the harvest of wheat, or to a sentence from the book of Ruth that mentions her eating toasted food after a day of harvesting wheat in Boaz’s fields.
Nondairy Shavuot culinary traditions may have been driven out of the mainstream, but they still exist – not only as delightful reminders of the beautiful use of culinary symbolism, but also as a sign of the diverse array of traditions that make up the Jewish experience.
As for Zizet and Shmuel? Well, there’s no need to worry about them. They do not stay alone for long.
On the first day of Shavuot, all their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren come over for a huge, carnivorous barbecue celebration. As the Talmud says, “There is no joy without meat and wine” – and that’s true even on dairy-dominated Shavuot.