May 16, 2002 Update

Letters from Israel

Thursday, May 16, 2002

Dear family and friends,

Hard to believe, but Shavuot, the feast of weeks, is already here. Fifty days after the horrors of the seder night massacre in Netanya, and in comparison life has been relatively normal. Who would have believed that we'd come to consider "only" a couple of successful suicide bombings a month to be relatively normal?

Yet we have lately felt things returning to normal. The radio news a few nights ago opened with announcer Esti Perez: "Like any normal country, we begin tonight's news programme with a slot about the weather." The average Israeli's dream in a nutshell.

The weather was indeed the most striking story of the day. Towards the end of what until then had been a pleasantly balmy May evening, we suddenly felt drops of rain. The wind shook the palm trees, and a moderate but steady rain was falling. The cool drops soaking through our thin summer clothes, dampening our hair, were deliciously refreshing. Driving home, the sky in the distance was sporadically brightened by flashes of lightning. Rain in mid-May. Yes really, rain in mid-May in Tel Aviv.

Only that afternoon we'd been experiencing the harbingers of the Israeli summer. In Jerusalem the heat was dry, though not yet the scorching, searing heat of summer. Overhead, swifts raced through the sky hunting flying insects, skimming the rooftops, their piercing cries slicing through the noise of the traffic on the busy street.

From behind their cool sunglasses a pair of soldiers kept a watchful eye on the scene from the relative shade of a shop awning. A middle aged cop sweated into his sticky dayglo vest as he directed traffic in the strong afternoon sunshine. Caught out by the changeable spring weather women gazed with renewed interest at shop displays of strappy open sandals and wispy cotton dresses.

The approach of summer means the arrival of Shavuot. Over the past few weeks television and radio have been full of ads for cheeses, cream and cheesecake, while commercial jingles are pastiches of Israeli folk tunes. Florists are selling fresh garlands for children to wear at the traditional harvest festivities, and there are special deals on bouquets for Shavuot decorations. Display windows look like mock barns, full of straw, milk churns and plastic produce. Clothing stores feature rack upon rack of pristine white.

More than our other festivals, Shavuot at home in Israel is much richer than in the lands of the diaspora. We may not have been able to bring our harvest offerings to the Temple since its destruction nearly 2000 years ago, but the spirit of the harvest festival is alive nonetheless.

Just look around and you can see the fields full of wheat, others covered in the stubble from the freshly harvested crop. As Passover celebrates the spring, Shavuot commemorates the start of summer. The summer flowers are in bloom, but the spring greenery is already fading to summer's browns and yellows. The pomegranate trees are covered in gorgeous red, bell-like, blossoms; the fruit itself will only ripen by late summer or early autumn. The fig trees have regained their foliage and the first tiny unripe fruits have appeared. Look carefully at the grape vines and olive trees and you will see miniscule seed like clusters - embryonic grapes and olives.

For the average Israeli, Shavuot is a time of folklore and harvest festivals, celebrating an older, more rustic Israel, the rural Israel of the kibbutzim and rural villages, of moustachioed farmers driving red tractors, of young men and women in "kovei tembel" (the floppy sunhat - Israel's national headgear) rising at 4am to work in the cowshed.

Agricultural communities across Israel hold Shavuot harvest celebrations, with swirling folk dances, white dresses, floral crowns and all. Last week Jerusalem got a taste of the festivities when farmers from across Israel brought their produce to the city in honour of Jerusalem Day - a ceremony recalling the Shavuot pilgrimage to Jerusalem of Temple times.

A village in northern Israel built a giant basket and invited communities and individuals to fill it with local produce. The filled basket was then taken to Jerusalem and presented to the Rabbi of the Kotel (Western Wall), for distribution to the city's needy.

Walking through downtown Jerusalem this week I was taken aback to see a giant basket of produce sitting in the middle of Zion Square and next to it a huge statue of a couple sitting at a festive table, glasses of wine in their hands. The basket was courtesy of Israel's produce marketing board and the couple had been donated by the Barkan winery, one of Israel's largest.

All this isn't to say that here in Israel we forget that Shavuot is also the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Increasingly, the custom of staying up and studying Torah all night is not restricted only to the religious or the more learned. Community centres across the country offer Shavuot Jewish Studies programmes, and an increasing number of study sessions are organised even by secular Israelis. For example, at the Metullah poetry festival in northern Israel they'll be devoting tonight to the study of the Book of Ruth, traditionally read on Shavuot. Each poet is expected to turn up to the session with a five minute commentary on the biblical book, and they intend to keep going for as long as they can hold out.

In previous years we've stayed with relatives who live in walking distance of the Kotel, the Western Wall, where we joined the Shavuot early morning prayers. Now that is a sight to behold: hundreds of thousands of Jews streaming into the Old City through all its gates at about four o'clock in the morning, filling the Kotel plaza. The walk back afterwards is exhausting, but well worth the effort for an inkling of what the ancient pilgrimage must have been like.

Wishing you all a happy Shavuot,


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Copyright 2002 by Leiah Elbaum.