I didn’t go. I admit it.
Fourteen years in Jerusalem and almost every year I witnessed the sunrise on Shavuot at the Kotel. And this year, I didn’t go. I just wasn’t feeling it.
Here is an amazing picture from 2008. I can promise you it looks more or less like this every year.
The first time I went to the Kotel on Shavuot to witness religious Jews sing sunrise prayers after a night of Torah study, I felt my heart expand with pride and a wave of joy washed over me hearing all the voices raised in song. The singing was not coordinated among the groups and yet it wasn’t a cacophony. It represented the full spectrum of diversity in the Jewish community – each group sang the same prayer, but in their own rhythm, in their own time. It was beautiful!
Not every year was so awe-inspiring, but on the whole, I enjoyed either staying up all night or waking up at 4:30am to witness the morning prayers welcoming the new day.
But I didn’t do it this year and I feel okay about it (even if it sounds like the lady doth protest too much).
One of the things I appreciate about living in Israel is that I’ll always have Shavuot off. This is a holiday I knew nothing about when I lived in the US. I would have only known about it if I was religious in some way and connected to a synagogue. It is possible in the US to connect to being Jewish without attending synagogue, but it is a lot harder.
Besides a lack of knowledge, if I wanted to recognize Shavuot in some way in the US, I would have to take a vacation day or a personal day from work. When I was working at the University of Washington many years ago, I requested Yom Kippur off. My boss asked if I was going to synagogue and fasting. I said that I wasn’t planning to. She was confused and questioned my taking a personal day for it. In Israel, I never have to have that kind of conversation ever again.
Living in Israel, I know that Shavuot is the holiday that commemorates the Jewish people receiving the Torah on Sinai. Since Passover, people have been counting up to this day – seven weeks (shavuot means weeks).
All dairy products are on sale because Jews traditionally don’t eat meat on this holiday. No one is actually entirely clear about why this is, but there are a few explanations.
Shavuot is one of the three pilgrimage holidays. In the olden days, Jews came to Jerusalem to make various kinds of offerings at the Temple on Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Today, Jews go to what’s left of the Temple, the Kotel, and pray at sunrise on Shavuot.
I didn’t go to special classes to learn this stuff. I still don’t go to synagogue. I asked my friends, colleagues, and neighbors, and they told me. Here in Israel it is common, cultural knowledge.
Living in a Jewish state, all the Jewish holidays are national holidays, so I get the day off. I can or I may study all night or go to the Kotel at sunrise, but I am not obligated to. I don’t have to answer to anyone about how I connect to being Jewish. It’s an odd paradox, I suppose, but being Jewish to me is my culture, my heritage, my history, my people. The mantle of religious Judaism doesn’t fit me comfortably. In short, it’s easier for me to feel Jewish in Israel because I don’t have to be religious.
So, not going to the Kotel on Shavuot? No big deal. I ate cheesecake. Isn’t that enough?