Shavuot, the festival marking the giving of the Torah as well as celebrating the harvest, isn’t exactly one of Judaism’s best-known holidays. Arriving just seven weeks after Passover, it sort of catches us by surprise. Thankfully, there’s cheesecake and blintzes for the gastronomic celebrant and here in Israel, it’s a holiday that offers opportunities for both the secular and religious Jew. Wear white, have a water fight, attend a kibbutz harvest festival, spend the night learning at a host of fascinating places all over the country – it’s all possible for just 25 hours.
1) WATER IT. Shavuot has always been Israel’s water festival, as kids swarm the streets with water guns and balloons, celebrating an early-in-the-season water day. Some claim it’s a custom from North Africa, where Jews equated Torah with water – both life-giving sources. It could also be because Shavuot falls in the late spring, when the weather starts heating up. For a more environmentally-oriented water experience, take a water hike through the Yehudiya River in the Golan Heights, where you can commune amid the springs and waterfalls.
2) LEARN IT. Supposedly the Israelites overslept on the morning that they were supposed to receive the Torah. After that monumental loss of face, we’ve been compensating with a night of study on Shavuot, staying up until dawn to learn Torah and other good things. Tikkun Leil Shavuot, or the ‘Repair of Shavuot Night’ has become a special kind of communion for Jews all over the world. Even in predominately secular Tel Aviv, the night has become a draw for Israelis looking for a new kind of Jewish connection and learning. Dress up in white as is the custom for reaching a state of purity and head out, wherever you are, to hear writers, poets, musicians, rabbis and scholars of all stripes talk about what they’re thinking.
3) EAT IT. Israel is the land of milk and honey — locals revere their yogurts, artisanal goat cheeses, 9% cottage cheese and spreadable, white cheeses of all sorts, particularly on Shavuot when the eating of milk products emphasizes one’s striving for purity of body and soul before receiving the Torah. Shavuot also celebrates the bounty of the harvest; choose your indulgence, whether it’s dense, rich and edible or the sweet fragrance of seasonal flowers and the ripest, fresh fruits and vegetables. Walk through a marketplace in any city, from Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem or the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv will abound with produce. Try the Friday farmer’s market in Tel Aviv’s port or the newly established farmer’s market in downtown Jerusalem, right in Sergey’s Courtyard. Load up on freshly picked fruits and veggies and cook up a storm, with some artisanal Israeli goat cheeses for dessert.
4) HARVEST IT. Each Israeli kibbutz revels in Shavuot’s connection to the first fruits of the summer harvest. Also called Hag HaBikkurim, Festival of the First Fruits or Hag HaKatzir, Festival of the Harvest, Shavuot still is a celebration of the harvest on the kibbutz, as families flock to celebrate where it all began, back when young, mostly European settlers living in harsh conditions managed to eke out a bit of green from the seemingly inhospitable, rocky soil of Israel. Join the celebration as tanned, sturdy children dressed in white parade along with the tractors and kibbutz members of all ages bearing baskets of the first fruits, called Tenah, a very distinctive element symbol of modern and ancient life in this part of the world.