The Long Night of Tikkun,

or What We Can Learn from Loving Women

Not long ago, we happened upon the website of a group of three young Jewish women “who care about different aspects of Jewish and Israeli identity and culture and who want to experience a meaningful Jewish life in Berlin.” They call themselves Hamakom (Hebrew: ‘the place’) and support, among others, more frequent encounters between Israelis and Jewish Germans. The group’s first event is a Tikkun lel Shavuot on the topic of “Women & Love,” the title clearly stating the theme of the evening. The event follows the tradition of studying and discussing specific Biblical texts and their interpretations on the night before Shavuot. This choice of topic reveals the meaning the holiday has in the discursive process of self-reflection.

WoodcutRuth and Naomi in the field

Jakob Steinhardt, Illustration to the Book of Ruth, 1955-1959, woodcut
© Jewish Museum Berlin, donation of Josefa Bar-On Steinhardt, Nahariya, Israel

Shavuot begins this year on the eve of 14 May and ends two days later. It is a holiday of unusually multifaceted significance, and it is rediscovered and redefined by every generation anew. Originally, the holiday celebrated the beginning of the harvest season, which included a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple. Pilgrims brought their first fruit and two loaves of wheat-bread to the temple. In the Talmud, Shavuot is conceived of as the festival on which the population of Israel received the Torah. In preparation of this donation, the holiday is also described as an Atzeret, a joyous assembly, which involves a night of communal thinking and debating. Tikkun lel Shavuot, as this nightly symposium is called in Hebrew, means literally: ‘The betterment during the night of the Feast of Weeks.’ It was first mentioned in the kabbalistic Zohar-book and gained importance in the 16th century.

The Jewish understanding of collective studying and discussing differs from that of the Greeks;  continue reading

Trees, Fruit, and a Breath of New Age

The significance of holidays isn’t just getting a few days off of work and school.´This holds true as much in Israel as elsewhere. Tu bi-Shevat, the “New Year’s Festival of the Trees,” which falls this year on 26 January, fails to meet the admittedly not always religious criterion of holiday.

Trees made out of cardboard

From our Tu bi-Shevat workshop for children, 2012 © Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Nadja Rentzsch

But Israeli children at least have to spend the day in nature, because the custom on Tu bi-Shevat is to make an excursion into the country to plant trees. Most look forward to it; for some, however – and I as a child was included in this latter group – it’s a relief when the cultivation of trees is replaced by some other form of togetherness in the shelter of the classroom.

In fact, in the last fifteen years the tradition of planting that had already been nurtured by the Zionist movement has been increasingly augmented by a new tradition, that of the Tu bi-Shevat seder, whose name alludes to the seder (Hebrew: order) at the beginning of Passover.  continue reading

Cycling Holiday

Maybe I should have fasted, but instead, I was rubbing my injured knee and wrist, picking up my bicycle from the road where I’d fallen.

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, one is supposed to reflect on one’s sins over the last year, to apologize to friends and family, to pray and to fast. And as it is the holiest of all Jewish holidays, it is widely respected in Israel, even by atheists. Trains, buses, and airplanes all stop running; shops and restaurants remain closed; even driving a car is taboo. And so, with the streets and highways empty and nothing on the radio or TV, it has become the perfect occasion for those of us who don’t take atonement all that seriously to go out for a bike ride.  continue reading