On the Jewish food scene: It's all about dairy by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The specific foods we eat on holidays sometimes feel as if they were biblically ordained, rather than just being traditions or customs from the different places Jews have lived. When I led holiday parties at Broome Developmental Center, people used to look forward to the different special foods we had for each holiday. Even though there is no mention of these foods in the Torah (except for a few on Passover), many people look for symbolic meanings to give their meal a more spiritual feeling.

This is particularly true for Shavuot. The first few years I worked at the paper, I collected reasons given for why we eat dairy on Shavuot. (Please note, not all Jews eat dairy on the holiday, but that’s a topic for another article.) These ranged from the fact that the land of Israel is described as a land of milk and honey (but the verse doesn’t say we need to eat them at any particular time) to milk being a symbol of purity (white being considered pure) to the fact that, after the laws were giving on Sinai, there was not enough time to kasher all the utensils and pans before the holiday so the only food available was dairy. A humorous suggestion said that, after all the fuss getting things ready for Passover, the women rebelled and said, “Only a dairy meal for this holiday!” (Yes, obviously that’s not what happened, but it’s a fun idea.)

I’ve learned that when numerous reasons are given for a custom, it usually means that the real reason is unknown or is something simple and mundane. That seems true for Shavuot: Spring was the season in Israel when dairy was plentiful, so how better to celebrate than to use what was available in abundance? The genius of Judaism is to take something that doesn’t have a religious connection and make it sacred by giving it religious meaning. So dairy – a food used to make a feast – became a religious symbol of the land of Israel. 

While dairy products are still eaten on Shavuot in the Ashkenazic world, over the past 40 years or so, changes have occurred. When I was a child, we always had homemade blintzes. That food symbolized the holiday, although I’m sure we had them at other times during the year. Unfortunately, homemade blintzes are time consuming and, at some point, we simply stopped making them. The frozen ones don’t taste anywhere near so good so people began to use other foods. For example, cheesecake has appeared on many tables because it’s easier to make and, for non-cooks, wonderful versions are available in the grocery store or bakery. Since not everyone likes cheesecake, ice cream (and ice cream socials) have become popular. When I added Shavuot to Broome Developmental Center holiday schedule, our treat was ice cream, Some years, the kitchen gave us ice cream cups to pass out. Other years, we had a large tub of ice cream to scoop out in bowls. The individuals then chose between chocolate or strawberry sauce for a topping; canned whipped cream was also available. 

Even though eating dairy foods in not a God-given commandment, it’s a great way to celebrate a spring/summer holiday. One advantage of living in contemporary times is that, for those allergic to dairy or who are lactose intolerant, there are plenty of wonderful fake-dairy products that mimic the real thing. And personally speaking, I think any excuse to eat ice cream, cheesecake or blintzes is a good one.