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Shavuot Kicks Off Summer with Taste of Milk and Honey

Now that summer is here and school is out doesn’t mean that the Jewish holidays are on vacation. Think again. One of the most significant events in Jewish history–the giving of the Torah at Sinai–occurs seven weeks after Passover (June 9 and 10 this year) and celebrates the cutting of the harvest of wheat and first fruits in Israel. The joyous holiday known as Shavuot, which means “weeks” in Hebrew, doesn’t get the widespread recognition of Hanukkah or share any distinctive symbols, such as matza and a sukkah, like the other two pilgrimage holidays of Passover and Sukkot. However, without Shavuot, our journey to the Promised Land is incomplete, like the ultimate cliffhanger.

Without Shavuot, there would be no dramatic liberation at Passover. The festival of Shavuot not only gives us the conclusion to the story of the exodus from Egypt, but also much to be thankful for.

On the day that God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses, the dry, desert mountain burst into a green pasture and bloomed with flowers, which is why we decorate our synagogue and home with greenery and flowers. Also, Shavuot commemorates when the Jewish people were given the oral and written laws, including kashrut, or kosher dietary laws that authorize them to eat dairy foods. Before the revelation of the Ten Commandments, Jews didn’t keep kosher. Today we celebrate this historical event by enjoying an array of dietary delights, as well as reading the Ten Commandments. The Bible says, “And God gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

To acknowledge the ancient agricultural aspect of Shavuot, which is also called Hag Hakatzir, “Festival of the (wheat) Harvest” and Yom HaBikurim, “Day of the First Fruits,” families are encouraged to go green. Prior to the holiday, you can turn your home into a greenhouse and decorate with ornamental fruit trees, branches, wildflowers, and grasses. To make pretty centerpieces, arrange wicker baskets with fresh fruit and fill vases with colorful cut flowers from your garden. Spice up the rooms with bowls of potpourri and, as in old European tradition, hang roses in windows facing the street. No wonder children love this holiday, especially in Israel where the youngsters wear floral wreaths around their heads. To get into the spirit, Sari and I like to make necklaces out of sweet smelling honeysuckle vines and tuck a white and yellow daisy behind our ears.

As with any Jewish holiday, food is symbolic. The custom on Shavuot is to eat dairy foods such as blintzes, cheesecake, kugels, cream cheese, boukeas (Sephardic filled leaf dough pastry), and cheese-filled kreplach. Other dairy delicacies include ice cream sundaes, cheese enchiladas, and vegetarian lasagna.

A real treat to make on Shavuot is a modern version of a seven-layer cake that goes back to a custom among the Sephardim (Jews of Spanish or Portuguese origin). The seven-layer cake is called Siete Cielos, or Seven Heavens, which symbolizes the seven celestial spheres that God traveled in order to present the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

A three-tiered Mount Sinai cake works just as well and is a lot easier to make. Start with a loaf shaped pound cake. You can buy one already made or bake from scratch. Cut the cake into three pieces: small, medium, and large. Place the big layer on the bottom, and make three tiers like blocks in a tower. Cover the cake with whipped cream, and garnish with strawberries and a few mint springs for greenery. Finally, decorate the top with a Jewish symbol, such as a Star of David or a paper cut out of the tables of the Ten Commandments.

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Currently, she is obsessing over summer vacation plans, so please feel free to send any advice to: ellie@mishegasofmotherhood.com or visit her website at www.mishegasofmotherhood.com.