'Alternative' Shavuot tikkun draws unaffiliated, expats

Activites include Israeli music and television, discussion of writer Etgar Keret's work.

The streets of Manhattan's Upper West Side were unusually busy for a late Sunday night, as Jews of all ages milled about, walking to and from tikkun leil Shavuot, the traditional all-night Torah study of a holiday which in the last few years has gone from a holiday barely noticed among non-Orthodox Jews to one of the most popular. Shavuot is now attracting unaffiliated Jews, who have been flocking to alternative celebrations. Credit belongs in part to Alma, a Tel Aviv-based cultural center, which co-sponsored Sunday's tikkun at the Jewish Community Center and at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Ruth Calderon, the founder of Alma College in Tel Aviv, is the spiritual force behind the Alma Tikkun in New York, which she brought over from Israel five years ago. The New York event - which last year attracted over 2,500 people - is as successful as its Israeli counterpart. Calderon is at the forefront of a movement among secular Israelis to reclaim Jewish texts and reinterpret them. At around 11 p.m. on Sunday, there was a long line for the elevator at the Manhattan JCC, as Jews of all ages, affiliated and unaffiliated, waited to be delivered to one of a myriad of sessions where they could while away the night. This year's program included swimming until 2 a.m., live music, belly dancing, text study, meditation, yoga and more. Several of the night's sessions, including screenings of three hours' worth of the second season of the Israeli television series B'tipul and segments from the defunct seriesBat Yam-New York, were geared towards Israelis, whose presence was noticeable. Other activities had Israeli themes but were meant for a mixed audience, such as a discussion of Israeli writer Etgar Keret's short story "Cocked and Locked," an acidic, darkly comic allegory about the tragic entanglement of Jews and Arabs over the promised land. The program description warded off the "weak of heart," who might have been turned off by the rather vivid and frightening tale. Ruby Namdar, an Israeli author now living in New York, led the discussion, touching on the "hatred" between the two people described in Keret's story. One Israeli participant said that when he served in the army he never "hated" the Palestinians; others suggested that "hatred" may be hard to admit. "Keret is telling us it's a pathology," said Namdar. "He moves us from the conscious to the unconscious, to a place of savages, a place of unadulterated hatred, where you are able to act out your hatred." In a "twisted" way, Namdar said the story was a "healing document" for Israel. "If you admit you are afraid, you become human." An unplugged concert and conversation with Israeli singer/songwriter Eran Tzur, which began at 11 p.m., drew mostly Israelis, who sang along to songs such as "Tootim," based on a poem by Yonah Wallach. The few English speakers in the audience were read a translation of the poem, written by a woman, in which a man calls to his lover to say "in a sweet high voice, strawberries, strawberries." "Now the phenomena in Israel is the language," said Tzur. "Every sentence connects us to the past." Tzur's sentiment equally captures the spirit behind the Alma Tikkun, which celebrates an ancient holiday but does so with a "twist." Organizers called it a contemporary way to honor the rabbinic statement, "We were all at Sinai."