The celebration of Shavuot is an excellent occasion to reflect upon Jewish culture, Jewish identity, religiously observant and secular Judaism.
I would like to start with the following question: How many secular Jews outside of the State of Israel will not be going to work on Monday, May 17, because of Shavuot? I would imagine that the answer is a number very close to zero.
In Israel, the answer to this question is radically different because Shavuot is a national holiday. The only people working will basically be those involved in emergency services, and those involved in the food industry and in recreational activities.
But now, instead of proceeding with my usual bright-eyed Zionism (where I speak about what it means to me as a religiously observant Jew to be living in a country where my religious holidays are the country’s national holidays), I want to ask: What is the import of Shavuot being a national holiday?
That is, if one is not already a Jew for whom religious tradition means something, does it matter that the sixth day of Sivan is a national holiday?
In answering this question, we can use the following definition: To be a secular Jew is to pursue Jewishness by ethnic identification apart from religious identification. One’s Jewishness is thus expressed through the food, music, languages, literature and art of the Jewish people.
It’s been sort of taken for granted that Israel is the only place on earth where one can be a secular Jew. I am starting to wonder if this has any meaning anymore—or ever did.
I’m now questioning the received wisdom that says that a person’s Jewishness will mean something to him or her simply because they live in Israel, that Jewishness will mean something simply because, for example, the country closes down on Shavuot. It’s now clear to many people that evidence supporting this thesis is very sketchy.
Here is a test to see whether Shavuot is able to order and affect the experience of an Israeli Jew: If an Israeli finds himself abroad, will it matter whether he celebrates Shavuot in some way?
My hunch is that the extent to which individuals celebrate Shavuot will be directly tied to the religious elements and customs of the holiday that speak to them—studying Jewish texts, eating dairy foods, and rejoicing in “first fruits.”
If an Israeli’s Shavuot typically had consisted of a long vacation weekend at a beach, it’s highly doubtful that Israeli, now living in the United States, will take off from work on May 17, especially when the long Memorial Day weekend is just two weeks away.
This means that Shavuot as a long vacation weekend only affects a person’s experience like any long weekend that they might take. If the fact that it is Shavuot is incidental, then Shavuot does not affect a person’s experience, then that person’s identity as a Jew remains unaffected by this holiday.
Israelis who are concerned with providing some meaning to Jewish identity are gravitating toward the activities of the rapidly growing number of organizations that encourage the exploration of Jewish tradition and culture among the general (primarily non-religious) Israeli population.
Here, for instance, is what was on the billboard that greeted people upon entering my town in advance of Shavuot one year: “The Center for Jewish Identity, in cooperation with Givat Ze’ev’s JCC, invites you, kindergarteners and first and second graders, to a story and activity hour today at 4:30 p.m.”
I don’t know what went on during that hour, but I and many Israelis feel that many such hours are needed all across the state, for all Jews of all ages.
TEDDY WEINBERGER is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.