The Holiday of Milk?
The holiday of Shavuot is known in the Torah as “the day of the first fruits” (Numbers 28.26). Linkage of the holiday with the giving of the Torah is an extra-biblical tradition, and so is the eating of dairy foods on the holiday.
As was not the case with any other Jewish holiday, the elite secular kibbutzim followed the bible’s lead on Shavuot; the holiday featured (and still does on some kibbutzim) an annual parade of first fruits—widened to include human “fruits” (i.e., babies) as well as “fruits” of accomplishments during the course of the previous year.
Freedom Farm, the Israeli incarnation of an organization that cares for animals rescued from the food industry, would like to return the holiday to its biblical origins. Last year, Freedom Farm ran an ad campaign under the heading: “Shavuot is the First Fruits holiday”; the wording underneath read: “Stop consuming milk, and save thousands of cows and calves.” Advertisements on the backs of buses pictured cows being transported in cages (painted Egged bus-company green) with the message: “Rides in the morning to a deadly toll, Shavuot is not a holiday of milk at all.”
As part of Freedom Farm’s campaign, this message was also used at the beginning of a television advertisement. Sung as a kind of nursery rhyme, the advertisement opens with a child playing with a plastic toy tractor and wagon. A voiceover continues (to pictures of old dairy television advertisements): “For years and years, the dairy companies have invested tens of millions of shekels so that we would think that the Holiday of First Fruits is the holiday of milk. This year, we are not buying it any longer. We are going to stop consuming animal milk and we are going to stop separating tens of thousands of calves from their mothers”—this last, spoken to a disturbing video clip of a cow running and bellowing as a wagon loaded with her calf pulls away from her.
As reported by the Haaretz newspaper last year, however, both the public broadcasting corporation and the Second Authority for Television and Radio refused to run the Freedom Farm advertisement. Kan 11, the public television station, told Haaretz that the ad was “ideologically controversial” and that its “wording and content might have offended the sensibilities of parts of the Israeli public as well as good taste, among other things, by using a children’s song and the way it was used.”
You didn’t have to be particularly cynical to understand what happened here: Precisely because the dairy companies are indeed major television advertisers, the Freedom Farm ad was rejected.
For me, the first thing to notice here is how in Israel the way a Jewish holiday is celebrated can lead to widespread discussion about a large social and environmental issue, such as the consumption of dairy. The second thing is that since making aliyah, because of the greater proximity of farming communities to cities in Israel, I have become more aware of just what it takes to get milk to my table. My son Ezra, who learned to milk cows from a young age, understands this very well.
Though Ezra loves to milk cows, at a certain point he understood how much pain and suffering is visited daily upon milk cows. Ezra is not ready to become a vegan, but he reasoned that if his goal is to reduce animal suffering, then the elimination of dairy from his diet will accomplish more than the elimination of meat.
I believe that he is correct. Something to think about this Shavuot in anticipation of the holiday’s signature food. Cashew-cheesecake anyone?
A link to the short advertisement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvu43xP71Vc.
Teddy Weinberger is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine. 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.