FARGO — When Rabbi Yonah and Esti Grossman celebrate Shavuot with their family next week, they’ll reunite with a moment some 3,332 years ago, when several million Jews gathered near Mount Sinai and received the Torah.
For Esti, it will be a remembrance of the two-day commemoration she experienced growing up among her 12 siblings in the Netherlands.
“Sundown is very late in Holland because it’s north,” she says, recalling how her father would come home from the synagogue, have a quick meal, then return with her older brothers to read and study the Torah. “It was special to see them leaving in the dark.”
The next evening, everyone else would join them, “even the babies,” she says.
“Normally, we were careful about making noise in the synagogue, but it didn’t matter then if kids were crying. Everyone was just excited about hearing (the Torah).”
Shavuot, or “Festival of Weeks,” takes place 50 days — or seven weeks — after the second day of Passover, and, following all-night Torah reading, concludes with a celebration involving dairy and wheat foods and decorations of florals and greens, signifying the “first fruits” of the harvest.
A “dairy buffet” during Shavuot might include lasagna, quiches, cheese blintzes and ice cream.
“My mom would make cheesecake from a Bundt pan to make it look like a mountain, with Fisher-Price ‘Little People’ (figures) around the cake” signifying those present at Mount Sinai, Esti says. “Even when we were older, she continued to make that cake.”
And every year, “it’s the same energy that comes back to the world” that was present at the beginning, she explains.
Shavuot, though a lesser-known holiday, carries great significance, according to Rabbi Yonah.
“The Jewish people were exiled from the land of Israel and spread to different communities, yet every single Torah scroll was copied the same,” meticulously by a scribe. “The Torah is what binds the Jewish people together.”
Prior to this, Judaism was “more of an abstract spiritual experience,” Rabbi Yonah explains, with “the divine hidden in creation.” With the Torah, God became more visible.
“There’s an old Hasidic saying that God hid himself in the world, and it’s our job to find him. The festival celebrates our ability to do that,” he says.
Given the pandemic, the holiday, which will span sundown Thursday, May 28, through the evening of Saturday, May 30, will be more subdued this year.
“Unless something major changes soon,” Rabbi Yonah says, “we will encourage everyone to read the 10 Commandments in their own home.”
Ronald Fischer says he’ll miss the community aspect. An English professor at Minot (N.D.) State University since 2000, he grew up near Butte, Mont., which, he says, once comprised many Jewish families.
“In Anaconda, the mayor was a Jewish man, and I worked for (another) who helped get some people out of Germany (during World War II).”
But in the 1960s, the synagogue “began sinking into a mine shaft and crumbling,” he says. “You can still see the foundation of that beautiful, reformed temple with the onion-shaped dome.”
His Jewish observances eventually slipped away, until a series of experiences — losing his mother, and studying Hebrew in Israel — inspired a return to his religion.
In time, Fischer met other Jews in the area, including the Grossmans, who relocated from Chicago to Fargo in 2012 to establish the Chabad Jewish Center of North Dakota.
Rabbi Yonah says the center, which exists to “inspire Jewish joy, practice and study” for the 100 or so Jews in North Dakota, recently purchased the former Ronald McDonald House on Broadway in Fargo.
Fischer also names the student rabbis, or “boys from Brooklyn,” as he calls them — who visit each summer to support local Jews — as helpful. In past years, they joined him for Shavuot, which starts “when you can see the stars,” but, Fischer admits, his eyelids usually become heavy before morning.
“I just can’t make it all night,” he says. “The boys would say, ‘Well, it must be sunrise in Iceland right now, so we made it.’”
Fischer names kugel, a noodle pudding, as a favorite Shavuot dish.
Rabbi Yonah holds an early memory of Shavuot feasting, too. It surrounds a decadent cake that sat in plain sight all evening, causing much salivating.
“Everyone was eyeing the cake waiting for the morning, but, as it turned out, whoever made it had forgotten to put in the baking soda,” he says.
The Grossmans say children play a key role in Shavuot, since God asked the people for a guarantor, and only offered the Torah after they suggested that the children might be suitable patrons. Esti, who home-schools their kids, ages 7, 5, 3 and 1, has a chance to frequently observe the unique qualifications of youngsters, including their propensity to live in the present.
“To them, yesterday is two months ago — or last week,” she says. “The most important thing is today. They say, ‘If it’s something good, let’s do it now!’”
Additionally, when children see something delicious or beautiful, she says, they think it’s for them, which might seem selfish, “but there’s another thing about it, too,” for a child would be inclined to claim the Torah for themselves, “so I can make a difference, act good, and share goodness around me.”
Children are the ones who will cherish and observe the Torah,” Rabbi Yonah says, affirming their central place in the festival. “The continuity of the Jewish people would be impossible without a Jewish education.”
Despite the limitations of this year’s Shavuot, undoubtedly, those who celebrate it will once again read, learn, pray and feast with gladness.
Esti Grossman’s Cheesecake
Makes: 2 cheesecakes
2 graham cracker pie crusts
Four 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
5 large eggs
Blend all ingredients together. Pour into graham cracker pie crusts. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes.
Top with cut strawberries or favorite topping before serving.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on March 24, 2020.]