It’s no secret that Jewish holidays tend to be very food-focused. So while my toddler is only just starting to learn about the rules, back stories, and traditions of the various holidays we celebrate, he already knows that on Purim we eat hamentashen, on Passover we eat matzah, and on Rosh Hashanah we eat apples and honey.
As I started teaching him about Shavuot this week, I realized I spent more time explaining that we’re all going to get together at Savta’s house for cheesecake than I did explaining that during this holiday, the Jewish people received the Torah.
It got me thinking: When you’re teaching a child about Jewish holidays, is it necessarily a bad thing to focus on the food?
There’s no question that food is a big part of our tradition. And that’s not just a Jewish thing–people of all backgrounds and religions have emotional attachments and reactions to food. And for a 2-year-old, food is a very relatable concept. My son knows the difference between cheese and meat, so reminding him repeatedly that Shavuot is a dairy-only holiday in our family isn’t so difficult. But explaining the origins of the Torah–well, that’s more tricky.
This is why I’m conflicted. I don’t want the stories and messages of our holidays to get lost in a sea of family dinners and baked goods, but I also feel strongly about the fact that food (or sometimes lack thereof) plays a big role in defining what those holidays are.
Part of me is inclined to let myself off the hook for now and accept that since my toddler’s grasp of most Jewish concepts is likely to be tenuous at best, I might as well emphasize the details that will actually mean something to him. And I do think they mean something to him, because not only does my child love food, he also loves talking about food. When I pick him from daycare and ask him how his day went, he’ll talk more about what he ate for breakfast and lunch than anything else. So when I ask him what we’re planning to do on Shavuot and his answer is “eat cheesecake and go to Savta’s house,” maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Because to him, and to me, these holidays aren’t simply about stuffing our faces–they’re about eating foods that represent our stories and our families. They’re about enjoying quality time with aunts and uncles and cousins around the table without sneaking glances at our emails or running off to quickly return work calls in between courses.
When my family prepares food for the holidays, it’s made and served with love. And while I do want my son to recognize that Judaism extends far beyond kugel and latkes, for now, I’ll be happy if he comes away with the ability to link specific foods–and the feelings that come with them–to specific holidays.
Besides, if he still remembers the matzah and haroset he ate over Passover, given the fact that my mother makes the world’s best cheesecake, there’s a good chance he’ll be raving about Shavuot till the time comes to distract him with apples and honey.