A guide to the socially distant Shavuot, with pilgrimage and cheese

It’s time to celebrate the giving of the Torah, through study and dairy food

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Shavuot 2020, taking advantage of new walking paths opened on the rooftops and ancient walls of the city (Courtesy Jerusalem municipality)
Make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Shavuot 2020, taking advantage of new walking paths opened on the rooftops and ancient walls of the city (Courtesy Jerusalem municipality)

There are cheeses crowding the supermarket shelves, cherries ready to be picked and the weather is way beyond warm. Shavuot, an agricultural pilgrimage festival, starts the evening of May 28, and plans are being made to celebrate despite the still mostly socially distanced world around us.

This is a holiday traditionally marked with all-night study to celebrate the biblical giving of the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, along with cheesecake, water fights and tractor rides that commemorate the seasonal harvest.

But this year, with COVID-19 still wreaking havoc, activities need to be reconfigured and adapted to smaller gatherings.

We’ve gathered a few ways to mark the holiday, whether through learning, hiking, eating or doing good.

1) Start by expressing some thanks as part of the international Days of Gratitude, beginning May 22 and culminating on May 30.

The Ten Days of Gratitude project was launched eight years ago by Beit Prat, a network of houses of Jewish learning, joined this year by M² – The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education, with a rotating menu of activities and prompts to help Jewish communities, families and individuals to share gratitude.

They geared this year’s initiative toward the final ten days of the Omer, the 50 days counted between Passover and Shavuot, as a way for people to express and share their gratitude, said Shuki Taylor, founder and CEO of M².

“It’s fine to do gratitude when things are great, but can you do it when things are hard?” said Taylor. “We’re trying to help everyone do that.”

Shavuot study at the Jerusalem Makuya Center in 2015 (Shmuel Bar-Am)

2) Jerusalem cultural center Beit Avi Chai usually hosts an extensive Tikkun Leil Shavuot, but this year it’s offering a different take on its usual roster of educators, thinkers, personalities and teachers, with online content for anyone touse for at-home study sessions.

The Beit Avi Chai content will be available as of Thursday, May 21, with more than 35 classes and lectures in Hebrew and English.

There is a special section for youth and young adults. Each class includes a 10- to 20-minute video on a host of different topics, a lesson curriculum, print-ready source sheets, and guided aids for independent study.

Speakers and teachers include Etti Ankri, Amit Segal, Tomer Persico, Emunah Elon, Metanel Buzaglo, Pini Ifergan, Vered Noam and Rabba Dalia Marx. English-language classes will be taught by Avivah Zornberg, Isaiah Gafni, Moshe Rosman, Tova Ganzel and Asael Abelman.

One of the picnic baskets created for the Picnic Festival at the Mate Yehuda region, which will be held over Shavuot, May 28-30, 2020 (Courtesy Orna Ben Haim)

3) Want to frolic in the outdoors and feel like you’re partaking of the delicious bounty of the land of milk and honey? Head to the Mate Yehuda region outside Jerusalem, home to goat cheese farms, wineries and breweries, for the Picnic Holiday, May 28-30.

Wineries, breweries and farms are each offering picnic baskets stuffed with local goodies. The ample hampers range in price from NIS 150 to NIS 400, and can be ordered from the list of providers on the Mate Yehuda website.

A map of the newly renovated Old City ramparts walk, with four kilometers of walking routes available from May 2020 (Courtesy Jerusalem municipality)

4) This biblical holiday was once marked by a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and many still take a trek to the Western Wall in the early morning, after the long night of learning.

A view of the rooftops from the newly renovated Ramparts Walk in Jerusalem’s Old City, open from May 2020 (Courtesy Yael Herman)

This year, anyone can walk along the tops of the Old City walls, where four kilometers of renovated ramparts are now open for socially distanced walks.

The family-friendly route leads from Jaffa Gate to Dung Gate, over to Lion’s Gate and back to Jaffa Gate, with wide-angle views of the entire city and hills beyond. The NIS 20 tickets (NIS 10 for kids) are available online. There’s an Android app that can act as tour guide, created by the Jerusalem Development Authority.

5) It’s all about the cheese on this holiday. Sure, there’s cheesecake, cheese blintzes, cheese plates. But there can also be cheese crackers, as in homemade Cheez-Its, those cheddar-y squares that tickle your taste buds. They’re way simpler to make than one would think. This recipe was developed by Efrat Lichtenstadt for newspaper Makor Rishon, where she writes a weekly food column.

Apropos of all those Shavuot dairy recipes, Lichtenstadt is also the editor of “The White Chef,” the annual Shavuot recipe magazine created by Israeli dairy giant Tnuva.

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A post shared by Efrat Lichtenstadt (@lichtenstadt)

Cheese Crackers
Efrat Lichtenstadt

1½ cups flour (you can use spelt instead of white)
80 grams soft butter
200 grams grated cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon sugar
4-5 tablespoons water

1. Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F). Mix all ingredients by hand or in a mixer, mixing with short pulses, and adding water at the end in order to form a unified, solid ball of dough.

2. Divide the dough into two balls and place on baking paper — roll out to 2-3 mm (⅛ of an inch). With a pizza cutter or knife, (preferably serrated), cut the dough into 2×2 centimeter (½ inch) squares.

3. Place the squares on a baking paper-covered sheet pan, using a spatula if needed, and leave a little space between each square. With a wooden skewer, make a little hole in the middle of each square.

4. Bake 10-18 minutes until golden.

Don’t eat them all at once. Happy Shavuot.

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