Blintzes and first fruits

Shavuot through the ages in the US

Cheese and fruit blintzes (photo credit: Dan Peretz)
Cheese and fruit blintzes
(photo credit: Dan Peretz)
Shavuot made its mark very early in American Jewish history, when in 1764, Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal of the Holy Land gave a memorable Shavuot sermon at the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Many American variations on the Feast of Weeks theme can both be discussed and appreciated.
Already at the beginning of the 20th century, the well-know dairy delight of Shavuot, the blintze, was described in the regular American press. Following a New York visit, a writer from Duluth, Minnesota, wrote a story about the Jewish coffee and tea houses of the East Side and described a culinary delicacy of the Hebrews.
“The glory of these establishments is the blintze, sort of a pancake,” he wrote, “rolled up with enclosed curds made savory. The Jews seem fond of the blintze, which is cooked upon gas stoves just like buckwheat cakes and is eaten as hot as the customer’s mouth can endure.”
In the New York Tribune of May 31, 1903, a large headline read, “Most Joyous of the Ancient Hebrew Holidays.” The article stressed that “the most striking dish of the festival is the blintze. This dish is made of cheese around which is rolled a delicious pancake, made of eggs, flour and butter.
This is then fried and furnishes the ‘piece de resistance’ of the Shavuot banquet.”
Another reference from a New York paper was to the “delectable dishes... in jostling Hester Street [on the Lower East Side], the pushcart paradise: blintzes.”
The actress Sonia Darrin is best known for her small part in the Humphrey Bogart movie The Big Sleep, now a classic. On June 10, 1945, she led the celebration of the Los Angeles Labor Zionist’s annual Bikkurim Festival. She was joined by famed actress Bette Davis. Together they appealed to several hundred people to “help create a Jewish state for the survivors of World War II.”
A most dramatic Bikkurim feast of first fruits occurred on Sunday, June 20, 1948, almost a week after the official observance of Shavuot that year. All of the Jews in America were buzzing, since Israel had officially come into being on May 15.
This celebration was held on the Mall in New York’s Central Park, and thousands of schoolchildren were the bearers of the fruits and vegetables. Davar, the newspaper of Israel’s Labor party, covered the event in word and picture.
“I was dressed as a pilgrim of the Second Temple period,” a native New Yorker joyfully recalled many years after that great day.
"Since I was a student at the Beit Hayeled school [in New York], I was advised by Dr.
Chipkin, the principal, exactly how to dress for the occasion. With great intensity, he told us that we were reliving what our ancestors had practiced in Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago. He did not hesitate to remind us that now the Jewish people had its own State of Israel – we could really celebrate this festival both for a new state and for the gift of the Torah on Mount Sinai.”
Working with the education department of the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), with the main responsibility for the program, was Dr.
Samuel Citron, the director of programming of the Jewish Education Committee of New York. He had written a number of original Jewish dramas, and it was thus fitting that he oversaw the event.
Citron explained to The New York Times that “there was a desire on the part of American Jewry to identify publicly with the struggles of the new State of Israel, only a month old. I suggested that the best way to link our two communities was through a natural bridge, the Bikkurim first fruits festival.
Since the Jewish state was barely in its infancy, we wanted this celebration open to the public at the mall in New York’s own Central Park.”
Mayor William O’Dwyer, chairman of the citizens’ sponsoring committee, issued a proclamation of support. With this kind of setting for the event, the young and old could express their feelings publicly for the new-old homeland.
Over 2,000 schoolchildren and youth group members were invited to be the bearers of the first fruit offerings. Leading actors from the Broadway stage and artists from the Metropolitan Opera were asked to don the garb of the priests and Levites of the ancient Temple. The grand march by the children was accompanied by the music of a small orchestra. Basket after basket of fruits and vegetables were brought forward and placed as an offering before the Kohen Gadol, the high priest, the other priests and the Levites.
One part of the mammoth event was covered in papers throughout the US.
“A moving part of the day’s presentation was entitled ‘Ode to the Soil,’ which portrayed through interpretive ballet dances and a children’s choir the longing of the Jewish people throughout the centuries for the return to Zion. This scene was climaxed by the release of 25 doves as symbols of peace,” said one paper.
Judge Morris Rothenberg, the chairman of the day and the American president of KKL-JNF, said: “We are here to rededicate ourselves to the higher ideals this festival stands for. We are here to register our solidarity and support for the brave fighters for freedom in Israel.”
The Central Park Mall, where this all occurred, resounded with the cheers of the 20,000 people in the audience. The reenactment of the Bikkurim Festival of old had caught the spirit of American Jewry. This grand day in June 1948 was never to be forgotten.

This article is in honor of the noted Holocaust historian, Professor Dov Levin, on the publication of his 22nd book