Shavuots dairy meals give hands-on Jewish experience

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To me, dairy food is comfort food. Creamy quiche. Thick puddings. Ice cream marbled with fudge or bulked up with chocolate chips and walnuts. Cream cheese on a bagel. Ricotta propped up by lasagna noodles. Grilled cheese. Brie. Crème brulée with burnt brown sugar on top.

Don't you feel better already?

Though I love dairy, most of the meals I serve to company are based on meat — except this week. Tradition calls for a festive dairy meal on Shavuot, and I'm delighted to comply.

My problem is that I end up preparing enough food for Shavuot to last as long as Passover. We have blintzes rolled around a sweet cheese filling, blinis to serve with sour cream and a dab of caviar, homemade gravlax to go with whipped cream cheese, pasta primavera with cream sauce and lots of veggies (a brief nod to healthful dining), a thick spinach lasagna (such a production I only make it this one time each year) and lots of side dishes, all featuring cheese or cream or both.

We have company coming and I hope they're really, really hungry, because we have the combined output of a farm full of dairy cows all cooked up and waiting for them.

I haven't even mentioned dessert, but I hope they like key lime pie.

Why is Shavuot known for dairy foods? One theory is that, since the holiday marks receiving the Torah, the Jewish people didn't have the laws of kashrut until Shavuot, so they refrained from meat and ate dairy instead.

Of course, there is much more to Shavuot than food. Shavuot means "weeks," and it ends the seven weeks between the Exodus from Egypt and the events at Mount Sinai. Just tell your boss that when you inform him that you want to take Shavuot off from work.

Unfortunately, for many modern Jews, Shavuot barely exists. It is unimportant or unknown. If you haven't experienced it, join in. This is a joyful and delicious holiday.

In our modern Orthodox community, there are all-night Shavuot study sessions for men and for women. The subject is the Book of Ruth, which we cover in exhaustive detail.

The image of Ruth, grandmother of King David, gleaning wheat in Boaz's field, levels our perspective as we clear the dessert dishes off the dinner table and spread it with textbooks instead.

I love these nighttime study sessions, and they make the holiday far more meaningful. But I can sit down to study, open to learning more about the holiday's deeper aspects, because I have prepared myself. I entered through the doorway of my kitchen.

Here, everything is tangible. If you want meringue, eggs must be separated. If you want custard, cream must be whipped. If you want to be kosher, you have to keep this dairy stuff away from the meat stuff.

This isn't a distant idea; this is work right at hand. Preparing the food for a yontif (holiday) gives it extra reality. It shows me that this didn't all happen to somebody else. We received the Torah. It is ours everyday.

But to make that real, I have to get involved, one of those steps you can't take at the last minute. After all, if you want gravlax for a holiday, you have to season, marinate and keep turning the salmon three or four days ahead.

Thus, through the mundane and messy avenue of food, I can approach the holiday with participation and anticipation. This is happening to me. It is personal. I am celebrating getting the Torah; I am engaged on several levels, from preparing my lesson for the study hall to making custard pies. Shavuot is not outside of me, distant and formal.

It is here, with the scent of baking cinnamon rolls, with the melted butter splattered all over the countertop, here in my kitchen; here in my life, and yours. Taste it.