Parenting Towards Shavuot

by Miriam Szubin, Washington DCJCC Parenting Center Coordinator

Shavuot begins at sundown on May 26.  How do I get my kids excited about it in advance? 

Shavuot, the next major Jewish holiday after Passover (and considered of equal importance in Jewish tradition to its more famous predecessor), often seems like an afterthought.  An informal poll of the students in the Introduction to Judaism  class that I teach at the J revealed that, while all of them had heard of Passover prior to taking the class, none of the non-Jewish students and only a very small fraction of the Jewish students had even heard of Shavuot, let along ever celebrated it in any sort of way. 

And from a parenting perspective, Shavuot can be quite a tough sell.  Passover provides all sorts of fun and meaningful ways to involve children, but Shavuot lacks the intense preparatory requirements, the striking shift in eating habits, the ritual banquet, and the dramatic narrative.  Four weeks after Passover and with just over three weeks to go before Shavuot, my kids are still obsessed with the Ten Plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.  But I have yet to engage them in the stories associated with Shavuot, either the actual receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (they like the thunder and lightning part but don’t really connect to the rest of it yet) or the story of Ruth and Naomi traditionally read in synagogue on Shavuot.   Furthermore, the main observance associated with Shavuot, the all-night study session known as a tikkun, happens after their bedtime.  And they love blintzes and cheesecake, but no one seems to know exactly why those foods are associated with Shavuot, so it’s not as meaningful an inroad to discussion as say, horseradish or haroset. 

But since feeding my kids seems to be the most effective way to accomplish anything in my house, I decided this year to try to build excitement about Shavuot through the seven types of non-dairy foods traditionally (and more explicably) associated with the holiday.  The Torah describes the Land of Israel as “a land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey (Deut. 8:8)” and these seven species were the harvest fruits historically brought to the Temple as sacrifices on Shavuot.  With one quick post-work trip to Whole Foods, I was able to set up a little Shavuot Seven Species tasting menu on a random weeknight (added bonus: I didn’t have to cook anything for dinner that night!).  The kids loved the bread rolls, grapes, figs, olives, and honey sticks; they were iffier on the pomegranate seeds and mushroom barley salad but were good sports about trying them. 

More importantly, they loved the novelty of the evening and seemed to more or less understand the connection to Shavuot.  And they are now looking forward somewhat more eagerly to the actual holiday, when I’ve promised them a reprise of the tasting menu (plus cheesecake!).   

For more ideas about observing Shavuot with your kids, check out these resources from My Jewish Learning:

Cheat Sheet for Tu B’Shvat

For some reason Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish new year for trees, doesn’t get as much attention as some of the more well known Jewish holidays. Perhaps it’s due to the lack of a central image and/or salient theme that might make it more memorable. Hanukkah’s got the timeless menorah, Purim has the hamantashen and grogger, and Passover’s chock full of matzah and red wine. Not the case with Tu B’Shvat. This holiday is defined by trees–a broad, universal signifier that is in no way inherently Jewish.

Tu B’Shvat is, however, a classically Jewish holiday with its own characteristics and customs that in many ways are as traditionally Jewish as dipping the apple in the honey (plus it’s got one of the most hummable songs in the Jewish holiday canon). Below are several of the well known (and less well known) ways of celebrating the 24-hour holiday (which occurs on the fifteenth day of the Jewish month of Shvat, February 8, 2012, AKA today).

1) The Tu B’Shvat seder deviates from the Passover seder with its abundance of exotic fruits, fruits juices, and wine to the exclusion of all other foods. Imagine a meal comprised almost entirely of fruit sampling. A Tu B’Shvat seder is a great excuse to try ambarella, mamoncillo, santol and a bunch of other kinds of fruit you never knew existed.

2)  I have a distinct memory from our Tu B’Shvat seder in yeshiva of a rabbi tracing back this tradition to the mystical enclave of Tzfat in the 1500s. The kabbalists held that eating fruit on Tu B’Shvat serves as a tikkun (a way of repairing) the sin of Adam and Eve. So according to that esoteric strain of thought, munching on unusual fruit is as good as ignoring a loquacious serpent!

3) Tu B’Shvat  is also a festival rooting the Jews to their land. It’s not unusual for schools in Israel to host tree-plantings on the festival,  and for schools in America to host fundraisers to plant trees in Israel. At the very least, Tu B’Shvat serves as the most ecologically-aware date on the Jewish calendar.

So whether you’re planting cedars, consuming date wine, or “repairing” a millenia-old sin, Tu B’Shvat is a day to take a step back and admire our world’s marvelous fruit and trees!

Honey Cake, Hold the Sin, er…nuts

by Jean Graubart, Director of the Leo & Anna Smilow Center for Jewish Living and Learning

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a time of hope, reflection and great optimism.  Along with the prayers that mark the occasion  the foods we eat are a way to ensure sweetness in the year ahead. 

Honey cake is the much revered and traditional dessert at the holiday table.  It may be superstition that keeps us eating this sweet, but it’s one that’s been handed down through the generations and certainly can’t do us any harm! Take the opportunity to wish your friends and family sweetness in the new year and to carry on a delicious tradition. 

There is some debate as to whether or not to put NUTS in the honey cake.  The Hebrew word for walnut is אגוז-“egoz” and its numerical value is 17 (much like הי -“chai”/life is 18).  17 is also the numerical value for חטא-“het” the Hebrew word for sin.  During the holiday we are asking forgiveness for our sins and so some say that to eat walnuts would be putting sins into our body.  Those who are especially cautious (some might say especially superstitious) avoid all nuts during the holiday.  Sort of the “better to be safe than sorry” model for living.  But if you love nuts, why not throw in a handful of pecans.

Honey cakes come in many forms, some dense and spicy, others filled with raisins.  My favorite is one that tastes primarily of honey and is not overcome by other flavors.  

ROSH HASHANAH (and all year round) delicious Honey Cake

Zest of 1 lemon or orange (large or small pieces are fine)    1 cup water
1 cup honey
½ cup brown sugar packed (I like dark)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs (large or extra large)
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda

Preparation time is about 15 minutes
Baking time about 1 hour
Yields about 10 slices

Preheat oven to 325

  1. Combine zest and water in a small sauce pan and heat to a boil for 1 minute, remove from stove, cover and set aside
  2. Combine oil, honey and brown sugar and mix well (wooden spoon or electric mixer)
  3. Add eggs 1 at a time beating/mixing well after each one
  4. Strain zest from water and discard zest
  5. Add 1/3 cup of the warm water to the bowl and beat on low speed 1 minute or with wooden spoon for 1 minute
  6. Add flour and baking soda slowly as you mix in
  7. Put in last 1/3 of lemon or orange water and mix until smooth  (Batter will be very thin)
  8. Pour into a greased loaf pan (9”5”)  (spraying well with Pam or the like is best)
  9. Place loaf pan on a baking sheet.
  10. Bake until cake springs back when touched very lightly in the center or when a wooden pick inserted in the center, comes clean, about 1 hour
  11. Cool cake in pan 15 minutes, turn out

This cake lasts throughout the holiday so enjoy.  Keep fresh by covering  with tin foil or plastic wrap.

Remember to add honey to your homemade round challah and to dip it into honey, rather than the salt used for dipping on Shabbat. If you want to go all out, keep all bitter or sour foods off the table for your holiday meal.

And finally, be sure to say the blessing that marks the festive occasion:
“May it be Thy will to renew unto us a good and sweet year.” 

And so is our wish to you and your families from the staff at the Washington DCJCC.


Rosh Hashanah Foods Besides Apples and Honey

by Jean Graubart
Director of the Leo and Anna Smilow Center for Jewish Living and Learning

Rosh Hashana, part of the Days of Awe, is a spiritual holiday, calling us to the task of inner reflection, soul searching, and forgiveness. It is also a time to find hope and sweetness in the New Year, and what better way to do that than through food? The most well-known symbol is honey, served on a round challah to represent the cycle of the year.

But there are more traditional treats from many different Sephardic cultures. Some of these Jews serve chewy dates for more sweetness; Moroccan Jews dip the dates into a tasty mixture of ground sesame seeds, aniseeds and powdered sugar. There is even a prayer to be recited over dates: “As we eat this date, may we date the New Year that is beginning as one of happiness and blessings and peace.”

Veggies have a place too. Many Sephardic Jews cook pumpkins or gourds to express the hope that as this vegetable is protected by a thick covering, so may we be protected and kept strong. Leeks are eaten for luck and spinach or Swiss chard or the leafy part of the beet root are eaten to “beat” off enemies and keep us from those who might do us harm. The greens are said to build strength. Israeli Jews often eat at least seven kinds of fruits and vegetables to symbolize the hope for a plentiful year. One favorite dish is carrot salad, with the carrots cut in rounds to represent coins and the hope of a prosperous year. Orange lentils are prepared for the same reason.

Shana Tova says the FishRosh Hashanah literally means “head of the year,” and in many Israeli and Sephardic homes, a fish head is given to a special guest or the head of the household to eat. Besides being a test for the stomach, the food represents the hope that the family will move forward and come out ahead in the coming year.

The pomegranate has become a fixture on the Rosh Hashana table. It is said that every pomegranate contains exactly 613 seeds, the exact number of the mitzvot, Biblical commandments, that Jews are obligated to fulfill. The prayer for this fruit asks that the coming year will be filled with as many good deeds as the pomegranate has seeds. Also, the top of the fruit is said to look like the crown of the Torah, and it is believed that the pomegranate is a symbol of fertility.

Of course there is the classic. Apples are dipped in honey because the fruit’s roundness symbolizes a hope that the New Year will be joyous from start to finish, full circle.

We at the Washington DCJCC, wish you a “Shana Tova”, a year of sweetness and good


Last night Jon Stewart noted, “It’s Sukkot, which is the Hebrew word meaning, “How many holidays can Jews fit into one month?”

Truly, the Jewish holiday season is non-stop action – from the reflective mood of Rosh Hashanah to the boisterous dancing at Simchat Torah, the holiday where we celebrate the yearly completion of the reading of the Five Books of Moses.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

How do we get the most out of this holiday season? I believe the preparation is the answer. And not only material preparation (shopping, cooking, etc.) But spiritual preparation.

Taking time to examine our behavior and our relationships brings deeper meaning to the High Holidays. And Sukkot, when we build and dwell in portable homes (Sukkot)  offers us an opportunity to reflect on the many blessings of having a permanent home – particularly in this year of foreclosures economic troubles.
Taking time to prepare enables maximum experience.

This fall, the Washington DCJCC is offering a different kind of preparation opportunity,   “Tying the Knot:  Pre-Marriage Workshop for Couples.” Wedding preparations can be stressful and overwhelming. And yet how much time do we devote to our spiritual preparations for the big day? “Tying the Knot” offers engaged couples a safe space to explore issues central to forming a healthy and happy marriage in a Jewish context.

Sarah Gershman is the Jewish Education Associate for the Leo and Anna Smilow Center for Jewish Living and Learning at the Washington DCJCC. Her children’s book The Bedtime Shma won the Sydney Taylor Book Award.

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