Shavuot’s big tent, from Ruth to Sandra Bernhard

Shavuot’s big tent, from Ruth to Sandra Bernhard

NEW YORK — While traditional Jews here and around the world will mark Shavuot (from the evening of May 18 to sundown May 20) by staying up the first night studying Torah, several thousand young men and women in San Francisco are expected to flock to Golden Gate Park where, for the admission price of $20, they can attend Dawn, an all-night culture and arts festival. There, in the name of Shavuot observance, they can listen to comedian Sandra Bernhard, dance to the Afro-pop tunes of Fools Gold and shmooze with Russian-American novelist Gary Shteyngart, among a host of other attractions, including films, a conversation about the Ten Commandments of the future, and a rotating session of Ask The Rabbi.
How you respond to those two extreme ways of commemorating the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, arguably the most significant event in Jewish history, reveals a good deal about who you are and where you see yourself on the continuum of Jewish history.
Nonobservant Jews may well view the option of devoting an entire night to Torah study as at best charming, at worst irrelevant, and surely not for them. And observant Jews might find the notion of paying to hear a potty-mouthed comic or to dance to pop music the antithesis of the festival of Shavuot, centered on the Jewish people’s acceptance of and commitment to the 613 mitzvot of the Torah.
Is it overly naïve to ask each extreme to appreciate the other’s approach as valid? Perhaps, but consider:
Observant Jews know well that the great majority of American Jews do not mark Shavuot in any way, and most probably do not know when it is celebrated, or why. So the fact that the Dawn festival, in the four years since it was created by Reboot, a national Jewish group for young creative types, has become the biggest Jewish event of the year in the San Francisco community, is worth noting. (Dawn this year is co-sponsored by Tablet, the Jewish cultural online magazine.)
“Shavuot is one of the most overlooked yet accessible holidays,” says David Katznelson, a founder of Dawn. “We live in the Burning Man, rave generation. This is an opportunity to celebrate an all-night holiday.”
He and other young Jews thought it ironic and unfortunate that a relatively minor holiday like Chanuka is so well known and observed while Shavuot, with its major significance, goes largely unnoticed each year. So they came up with a program that has put Shavuot on the map, reaching hip, young Jews who otherwise would have no knowledge of the festival.
Similarly, late-night Shavuot programs at the JCC Manhattan and 92nd Street Y have captured the imagination of many young New Yorkers in recent years, and the holiday is marked similarly in Israel, where secular young Jews in Tel Aviv, for example, are showing renewed interest in the ancient holiday, albeit on their own terms.
I’d like to think that these young people would recognize the fact that Shavuot has been preserved for thousands of years primarily through the faith and observance of the core of Jews who carried the Jewish experience forward. Anyone who has witnessed a tikkun leil Shavuot (all-night learning session), being part of a group of hundreds of people sitting in synagogue and studying Talmud or other traditional texts throughout the night and then praying the morning service at dawn, can feel the pull and passion of generations past who venerated and kept alive the words of the Torah.
How we interpret those words, as divine or divinely inspired, is significant, of course, but it is helpful to think of them as binding us together rather than dividing us.
Shavuot is the festival that speaks most directly to this concept of unity and embracing the other. Indeed, on Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth, the story of Jewish history’s best-known convert, a young Moabite princess who chooses Judaism, and becomes great-grandmother of King David. The rabbis tell us that from Ruth’s progeny will come the messiah, an implicit lesson that conversion to Judaism signifies complete acceptance.
This, then, is a holiday not only associated with the tradition of eating cheese blintzes but about appreciating and accepting those who want to engage in an authentic way.
One can look down on a marginal Jew whose only tenuous connection to Judaism is to attend a cultural happening in a San Francisco park, or one can look up to that person as someone choosing a Jewish connection, not out of obligation but out of curiosity or inner need — a spark that can be ignited.
Those of us in the circle can draw it tighter, all the while bemoaning the fact that we are a disappearing people, or we can expand that ring of caring to those seeking meaning and community, and be strengthened by teaching and learning from them.
The choice is ours. On this Shavuot remember the words of one woman who came closer to Judaism, and forever changed its trajectory, through a personal connection: “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God,” Ruth tells her mother-in-law, Naomi, in one of the most moving passages in the Bible.
So whether you spend Shavuot night in the confines of the synagogue study hall, re-enacting biblical stories through improv at 92YTribeca or curled up with a book at home, think of your Jewish journey as connected to those of countless others, across time and space. And rejoice that we share the same Torah.
Chag sameach.

(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at This column previously appeared in The Week.)