I tutor students part time in a somewhat Jewish area outside of Washington, D.C. Most are pretty excited when they find out I’m Jewish, and I usually try to bond with them over their excitement by mentioning holidays or fun facts on Israel. Oftentimes, I’ll ask, “What holidays are coming up?” and see their faces light up when they answer.
This week, I asked several of my students, “What holiday is coming up?” and watched as a blank stare come over their faces. One postulated, “Yom Kippur?” another looked at me as if I were crazy and said, “Uh, Passover was last month, Yael.” Finally, one exclaimed after much thought: “Oh yeah! It’s the Torah’s birthday. It’s important, right?”
Shavuot has always puzzled me. It’s an important holiday, but honestly, for the vast majority of Jews out there, it isn’t celebrated, and if it is, it’s by eating cheesecake. Even the “Jew FAQ” website who lists a “Gentiles’ Guide to the Jewish Holidays” states that “this holiday is every bit as important as Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but most American Jews don't see it that way.”
You’d think that for a holiday that considers macaroni and cheese as appropriate festive food, that Americans would be obsessed with Shavuot (myself included). It’s a happy holiday, celebrating the gift of the Torah to the Jewish people, unlike the somber holidays like Yom Kippur. So why don’t we celebrate it more?
Part of me thinks that Shavuot is a victim of its timing. Coming after Passover, a holiday that literally takes over the kitchens of most Jewish people for about a week, I think most secular folk just feel, well, tired. After thoroughly cleaning our kitchens and suffering from the havoc that matza reigns on our digestive system, the thought of creating a full-dairy meal induces a figurative stomachache (or a very real one for those who are lactose-intolerant).
Another thought comes to mind with the classic Jewish joke that serves as the common denominator for almost every Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” Take Purim for example: it’s a holiday that is generally good-spirited, but it has an undertone of genocide against the Jewish people. Shavuot isn’t solemn – it just celebrates the Jews receiving the Torah. Could it be that we secular Jews, in a way, can’t appreciate this holiday for it is happy through and through? Even a quick Google search for “Jewish quotes” results in a huge amount of quotes on suffering. And yes, we have, as a people, earned the right, morbidly, to discuss suffering in such a way. Perhaps, however, it’s time for us, to start recognizing some of the happy times in our history.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. Pessimistic and cynical, and I’ve told my fair share of depressing quotes. While my classmates in high school placed happy, funny, or spiritual quotes for their senior yearbook quote, my quote was Elie Wiesel’s famous (and true) words, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
I’m not saying we need to stop remembering our sometimes terrible past. Nor am I saying that we always need to be optimistic. The world and history has been unfair to us. However, maybe it’s time for us to pay as much attention to the happy parts of our history as we do the sad.
So, this Shavuot, I decided to do more than ask my students what holiday is coming up. I’m eating dairy meals, and doing some research to learn more about this happy holiday. Next year, maybe I’ll go to synagogue or throw a dinner party. With a few little steps like these, maybe I’ll start developing a more nuanced view of Jewish history, or maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to say more about this happy holiday than “it’s the Torah’s birthday.”
Yael Miller is a professional working in International Affairs in Washington, D.C.