AMERICAN Jews typically associate Shavuot with the Book of Ruth, late-night Torah study sessions and eating at least one generous helping of cheesecake.
No matter where you reside, were fairly certain you wont find Jews dancing in wheat fields, escorting tractors like royalty or making mountains out of hay.
But for Israelis who glimpsed their first sunrise on a moshav or currently toil on kibbutzim, this pilgrimage holiday and harvest celebration tops the list in terms of cherished memory and present joy.
For Michal Peleg-Uziyahu, Denver’s shlichah, the very mention of Shavuot evokes a burbling stream of recollections. ”Shavuot is my favorite holiday,” she says excitedly.
”I grew up on a moshav that was completely secular. Our celebrations always emphasized the agricultural component. Everyone went out to the fields and decorated the tractors. We all wore white, which made us feel holy and pure, like we do on Shabbat.
“Children born over the past year are brought before the assembled and blessed. And we have the best food: all kinds of cheeses and wines.
“I also think we hear the most beautiful Israeli songs during Shavuot.”
In Ramat Negev, Allied Jewish Federation’s partnership city, boutique dairies produce delectable cheeses from goats milk, enticing urban tourists to swell the rural streets.
“I met a cow farmer who said Shavuot is a conspiracy created by cheese farmers,” Peleg-Uziyahu laughs. ”But I think he was kidding.”
She traces the renewal of agriculture in Shavuot observances in Israel to the Zionist halutzim, or pioneers. When they came here, they started celebrating Shavuot as an agricultural holiday.
While today’s secular kibbutzim stress agriculture and there are Orthodox kibbutzim that embrace the religious, she feels both elements are represented.
“On Shavuot, the secular do their thing and the Orthodox do theirs. Then suddenly you notice you are missing something. Now some Orthodox include the agricultural elements, and many secular Israelis engage in all-night Torah study. It’s a beautiful combination.”
This year, Peleg-Uziyahu is traveling to Israel with her family for Shavuot.
Happiness tickles her voice.
“I love the whole atmosphere,” she enthuses. “Shavuot in Israel is a very special time.”
SHAVUOT may be one of the least understood holidays on the American Jewish calendar. Even though it commemorates the most wondrous day in Jewish history the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai for many it has the weight of a footnote.
Shavuot, which marks the end of the counting of the Omer, originated as an agricultural festival in the Torah:
“Celebrate the Feast of Weeks with the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year” (Exodus 34:22).
“Then celebrate the Feast of Weeks to the L-rd your G-d by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the L-rd your G-d has given you” (Deuteronomy 16:10).
“Celebrate the Feast of the Harvest with the first fruits of the crops you sow in your field. Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field” (Exodus 23:16).
“On the day of first fruits, when you present to the L-rd an offering of new grain during the Feast of Weeks, hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work” (Numbers 28:26).
While the Torah does not decree any special mitzvot regarding Shavuot except refraining from work, it is customary to hold special prayer services and holiday meals consisting mostly of dairy products.
The Israelites gradually saw G-d’s gift in the laws of the harvest as much as in the harvest itself, and those laws come from the Torah. The agricultural focus took a back seat to the divine revelation, and Shavout evolved into the season of the Giving of the Torah.
Also, as life in the big city gradually replaced rural existence, the agricultural aspect waned.
Kibbutzniks are 21st-century men and women who choose to dwell in an agrarian society. They are blessed with empirical wisdom derived from direct and daily contact with the land.
For them, agriculture is a basic tenet of existence — and Shavuot is the crown.
EYTAN Peer has lived at Kibbutz Sde Boker (Ben-Gurions former kibbutz) since 1979. A soldier in the IDF, he wanted to extend his army service with his friends. Working on a kibbutz seemed like the best solution.
”Initially, being a kibbutznik was a weird idea,” laughs the 51-year-old. ”But I ended up staying. I realized this life suited me perfectly.”
Now a theater director and producer, Peer is also Kibbutz Sde Boker’s secretary.
“The Sde Boker of 2012 is a modern kibbutz, with a completely independent style of living,” he says. ”The family is independent. Yet this is still a traditional kibbutz. We never privatized. All members contribute their salary to the kibbutz. We are all equals.”
Peer, who is married and the father of three, grew up secular. ”My family is from Iraq. We went to synagogue, discussed Jewish ideas, lit the candles on Shabbat — but always in our secular way.”
He left the kibbutz twice: first to serve as shaliach in Perth, Australia, and then as a representative of the kibbutz movement in New York for three years.
In the 1980s, with the ascendancy of the right wing, kibbutzim throughout Israel lost their government subsidies.
Kibbutz Sde Boker could no longer raise peaches and other popular items. “We lost money,” Peer says. ”We couldn’t survive. Many kibbutzim had to close.”
For more than two decades, Kibbutz Sde Boker focused on developing new machines, techniques and technology to assist farmers throughout the world — and stay alive.
”Recently we started making olives for olive oil,” he says. ”We are doing good.
“But you want to know about Shavuot, right?”
From harvesting the first fruits to the gift of the Torah, Sde Boker incorporates all elements of Shavuot. But the emphasis is predominantly agricultural.
”Between Pesach and Shavuot is a beautiful time in nature,” Peer says. “Everything is new the plants, the flowers, the fields. Everything starts to grow and yield its fruit.”
The kibbutz celebrates the first fruits, or bikkurim, by arranging the colorful bounty in baskets and placing them in front of the stage. In a similar vein, parents bring babies born in the last year to the stage. “And each kid gets a special song,” Peer says.
”We bring out old agricultural tools and tractors, things we havent used for many years, and have competitions. Its our Olympic Games. And the winners have to make coffee.”
The head of the kibbutz reads a financial statement and lists various accomplishments.
“Then we read Megillat Ruth,” Peer says. ”The story of Ruth is very important. For us, it means that we should have patience for non-Jews. It’s a symbol of how society should teach tolerance and love for other people.”
Several kibbutzim attract tourists from outlying cities on Shavuot.
”Everyone wears white and puts crowns of flowers on their heads. And yes, we all eat dairy products to thank nature for its blessings.”
Peer mentions White Night in Tel Aviv, a popular way for secular Jews to study Torah and other topics. The restaurants and cafés are open all night.
“I think a Jewish synagogue in New Jersey started this, and I hear its an incredible tikkun leil Shavuot.”
YIZHAK Yablonski, 32, who is trying to calm one of his four children after a busy day, moved to Kibbutz Alumim last summer after serving as an emissary in Allentown, Pa.
The Orthodox kibbutz, which operates a guesthouse for tourists, is about four kilometers from Gaza.
”Maybe this makes your story more interesting,” he laughs before conveying an urgent message in Hebrew to a noisy child.
Yablonski says obvious differences delineate the observance of Shavuot on religious and secular kibbutzim. For the secular, Shavuot is about the harvest season. “We celebrate the day that G-d gave us the Torah.
“Still, there are more similarities than disparities. It’s really a matter of degree.
“The children at Alumim study Torah throughout the night and enjoy a festive dairy meal the following day.
“Wearing white, while not imperative, is the preferred color. We only wear fancy clothing, because this is a holiday, says the former teacher who is now second in charge of wheat, peanuts and sweet potatoes.”
Yablonski recalls that the Jews of Allentown were rather uninformed about Shavuot. They knew this was the holiday where they needed to study Torah. But at Alumim, everyone prepares.
Preparation, it seems, is not limited to the religious.
You can hear Yablonski’s love of the land in his voice.
”Four days ago we started cutting the wheat. It was wonderful watching the tractors work in the fields.
”This adds another spirit to the holiday — it takes you inside the holiday.”
That said, Yablonski devotes the rest of his comments to G-d and the Torah.
“In the Torah, we are commanded to take an amount of new wheat to the Temple and sacrifice it to G-d. Shavuot was originally about the harvest and bringing it to G-d.
”Then the sages combined the two concepts because we no longer had the Temple. They said, ’OK, Shavuot is the day Hashem gave us the Torah’.”
His explanation of the tradition of studying Torah late into the night is half midrash, half common sense.
”When the Israelites were waiting for the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai, they fell asleep,” he says. ”This is like falling asleep the night before your wedding! Now we correct our mistake and study all night to show how excited we are to have the Torah.”
Life on a kibbutz has also taught Yablonski that Jews who learn to regard each other in a spirit of equality embody G-d’s true intention.
”This is the point about Shavuot,” he says. “When the children of Israel got the Torah, they were united in one heart, one body. The nation of Israel must stand together as a nation. It doesn’t matter if youre Orthodox, secular, man or woman.
“We must be together.”
Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News