Out There: Shavuot - Lost in translation

'Sure, I know all about the Pentecost, but I've never heard Jewish kids taking days off for it,' Mr. Bisceglia said.

herb keinon (photo credit: )
herb keinon
(photo credit: )
'Mr. Bisceglia, I need to miss school tomorrow, and the next day it's Shavuot," I told my 11th grade psychology teacher many years back. "It's what?" the teacher said. "What is it exactly?" "Shavuot," I said, forming one of the Tablets of the Law with my hands. "You know, Shavuos," I repeated, adding the Ashkenazi pronunciation, thinking moronically that this articulation would ring bells with my non-Jewish teacher. Still, nothing registered. My mind raced, and I remembered how the Hertz Pentateuch - at the time the Rashi for modern, English-Speaking Jewry - referred to the holiday. "You know, the Festival of Weeks." "Never heard of it," he said, starting to get annoyed. "Tomorrow's your final." "It's the Pentecost, Mr. Bisceglia," I burst out, happy at last - thanks to lyrics from one of my favorite Paul Simon songs, "Lincoln Duncan" - to have remembered what I thought was the English name for the holiday. A young girl in a parking lot was preaching to a crowd singing sacred songs and reading from the Bible Well I told her I was lost and she told me all about the Pentecost And I seen that girl as the road to my survival "Yes, the Pentecost," I said to Mr. Bisceglia. "You've heard of the Pentecost." "Sure, I know all about the Pentecost, but I've never heard Jewish kids taking days off for it," he said. Surely not, for aside from being the proper English word for Shavuot, Pentecost is also a Christian festival commemorating the descent of the Holy Ghost seven weeks after Easter, not something generally celebrated by the Jewish students of George Washington High. NOT THAT the Jewish students of George Washington High celebrated Shavuot either. In my public high school of about 2,000 kids, some 15 percent Jews, maybe a handful stayed home each year for the two days of Shavuot. On Rosh Hashana they would stay home; on Shavuot - forget about it. Shavuot in the US is the silent, unknown Jewish festival - the Jewish calendar's forgotten stepchild. Ask Americans to name some of the Jewish holidays, and they'll name the old favorites, the standard fare: Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana, Hanukka and Passover. But go beyond those, tell your teacher or boss you need off for one of the lesser-known holidays, for the Feast of the Tabernacles (Succot) or Shavuot, and you'll be treading on shaky ground. They'll think you a slacker, trying to weasel some free vacation time for a religious holiday that they have never heard of. And why should they have heard of it? Paul Simon never wrote a song alluding to Shemini Atzeret. Shavuot, Succot, Simhat Torah - these are the holidays that never made it into American popular culture. For most Americans, Shavuot has about as much resonance as Kwanzaa, a 40-year old African American festival. It's not difficult to cite movies or television shows with references to Pessah and Hanukka, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But one would be sorely pressed to remember the last time Shavuot got any mention in Hollywood. Forget non-Jews; for most American Jews Shavuot is only a marginal holiday. Jews who would not dream of working on Rosh Hashana, or would not miss a Seder, completely ignore Shavuot. IN THE community I grew up in Denver, there were times when a Denver Bronco football game clashed with Kol Nidre. In our traditional shul - located on the continuum somewhere between Conservative and Orthodox Judaism - this was a dilemma. You could see some people weighing the options in their mind: Broncos, God; God, Broncos. But for most, it was still a no-brainer - Bronco game or not, they'd come to shul. But Shavuot was a different matter. Everything trumped Shavuot. The basketball Denver Nuggets, who always stank, trumped Shavuot. I'd sit in a cavernous sanctuary beautifully bedecked with flowers and greenery on Shavuot morning, and feel terribly alone. A few people would stroll in for Yizkor, and then go back to work. Where was everybody? Simple, they were all taking Mr. Bisceglia's psych exam. In fact, on the unique scale of religiosity developed by my Jewish friends, anyone who missed school for Shavuot was spiritually right up there with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Many a sociologist has discussed why some holidays have been accepted by mainstream American Jewry, while others have remained the domain of only a few. Any number of explanations have been proffered. One of the reasons has to do with food. Those food-centric holidays - Rosh Hashana, for instance, or the Pessah Seder - are big hits. Holidays with less of a culinary theme are less popular, which explains the problem with Simhat Torah and Shavuot. Sure, its exciting to eat a turkey on Rosh Hashana, and matza balls on Pessah. But how thrilling is it, really, to sink your teeth into a cheese blintz? It has also been theorized that those holidays where the family traditionally gets together have become accepted, and those holidays are typically Rosh Hashana, Pessah, and - albeit to a lesser degree - Hanukka. Shavuot never penetrated into the non-Jewish consciousness in the US because it never penetrated into the mainstream Jewish consciousness in the US. If my Jewish friends didn't take note of the holiday, then what could be expected of Mr. Bisceglia, a good and decent man who - genuinely - didn't realize that Jewish kids needed that day off? Which just underlines one of those hidden benefits of living in this country, rather than in Denver. Here there are no exams on Shavuot.