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Shavuot in Jerusalem: A Night of Study and a Day to Surf

Shavuot in Jerusalem: A Night of Study and a Day to Surf

Two surfers in the Mediterranean in Israel

Four years ago, I made aliyah from Los Angeles to Jerusalem. I, along with my husband Rabbi Donald Goor and our precocious cat, Merlin, flew non-stop to a new and different world waiting for us in Israel. For 25 years, I was the cantor at Temple Isaiah, a vibrant congregation in west Los Angeles. Those of us who serve congregations in North America as rabbis, cantors, educators, and synagogue administrators make sure that sacred time and space are created within our communities. We organize services, activities, meals, and study sessions.

In Israel, sacred time and space just sort of happen.

My best indicator of the coming holidays (whichever one that may be) is a visit to the shuk Machane Yehudah (open-air market). The market’s many fruit stalls and bakeries let me know with great certainty which holiday is up next on our ever-revolving carousel of festivals and celebrations.  In the winter, Hanukkah’s sufganiyot (doughnuts) quickly yield their place for oznei haman (Israel’s version of hamantaschen). The eye-high mountains of dried fruits announcing Tu BiSh’vat quickly are disassembled to make way for bushel baskets filled with herbs and spices for Pesach.

I wander into the shuk and I know that Shavuot is near when I can hear the fruit vendors loudly extolling the virtues of the newly arrived crops of peaches, plums, apricots, and nectarines. The summer fruits appear slowly in the shuk, but as the days get longer and the temperatures rise, the mountains of these luscious stone fruits expand geometrically and their prices drop precipitously.

The changing displays at my local supermarket also broadcast the holidays on an unavoidable and happily received frequency. I shop at Osher Ad, a chain of markets known not only for their low prices and great quantities and quality, but also loved by many American immigrants because the market imports Costco products! (Disclosure: The mere sight of those Kirkland logos on a variety of products makes me just a bit homesick.)  As Shavuot approaches, the supermarket entices me with huge, floor-to-ceiling displays of cheesecakes, jumbo-sized containers of sour cream and cottage cheeses, and mammoth bricks and blocks of imported European cheeses. And in true Costco marketing style, that three kilo wheel of imported French brie somehow ends up in my shopping cart.

If the supermarket and the shuk feed my stomach, it is the wealth of study available on Erev Shavuot, as part of a city-wide Tikkun Leil Shavuot (all-night Shavuot study session), that feeds my brain and soul. Starting around 10 p.m., the streets of Jerusalem become crowded with Jews of all denominations, levels of observance, philosophies, and theologies seeking out the evening study sessions on a wide variety of topics featuring a wide array of teachers. There is so much to study, encompassing so many themes, in such a variety of venues, that there is a published map with a matching guide and schedule. Like hikers planning a journey, we plot out our course. If the Shavuot dining table is a buffet of dairy kugels, blintzes, and sweet desserts, the Shavuot study sessions are a smorgasbord of great learning with amazing teachers on fascinating topics. Shiurim (study sessions) are offered in Hebrew, English, and even in French.

On Shavuot evening, the city resembles some sort of Talmudic pub-crawl: with eager students of all backgrounds trying to find a seat with teachers of great renown. I’ve studied, albeit briefly, with university professors and Biblical scholars, great rabbis and archaeological mavens. On this evening, the boundaries that often exist between the myriad religious and cultural communities in Jerusalem seem to be minimized, as all of us, students of Torah – in all its amazing manifestations – seek a bit of our own personal torah. 

This year, I’ve been invited to teach. I have a mercifully “early” time slot: from 11 p.m. to midnight. Those studious wanderers who attend my class (taking place at Kehilat Kol HaNeshama) will join me for a lesson on modern-day prophecy, as presented in American protest songs from the 1960s and 1970s. In place of the learning that takes place over a page of Talmud, we will join together to study the words of such Jewish luminaries as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Tom Lehrer. On Shavuot evening, we look at “torah” in all its forms.

At first daylight, the morning festival prayers for Shavuot will begin. Torah will be read, with the Ten Commandments chanted and the psalms of praise – Hallel – sung vigorously. Bleary-eyed students will wander home to breakfasts of yet more cheesecake and maybe some leftover blintzes. I’ll most likely catch up on some much-needed sleep. And after that? I’ll pack up lunch in a cooler, grab our towels, and some sun screen, and join the rest of Israel on the beach – where the joy of the festival will continue as we surf and paddle along the shore of the Mediterranean.

Cantor Evan Kent is an oleh chadash (new immigrant) living in Jerusalem, where he is on the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. For 25 years, he served Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, CA.

Cantor Evan Kent
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