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Shavuot

Figuring Out Israeli Traditions, One Mistake at a Time

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Shavuot was approaching, and the instructions from the teachers at our son’s gan (Israeli preschool) seemed simple enough: We were to dress our kids in white and send them each with a basket of bikurim, first fruits. They used the biblical word for basket, tenne, as per Moses’ instructions to the Jewish people to bring a basket of first fruits to God when they enter the promised land.

I don’t know what biblical baskets looked like, but the only one we had in our house was the large brown wicker basket we’d used to carry Matan out during his bris, so we threw in a few peaches and nectarines, dressed Matan in a white undershirt and beige shorts, and sent him off to gan, relieved that we had remembered to follow the special instructions for that day. Little did we know.

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We realized we had misunderstood even before we entered the gan. Outside the gates leading into the playground we watched as the other toddlers filed out of their parents’ cars decked out in their Shabbat finery: white lacy dresses for the girls, and crisp button-down shirts for all the boys. It seemed they were all carrying identical woven white baskets, about a fifth the size of the monstrosity that poor Matan could barely balance in his tiny arms. Their baskets were decorated in flowers and leaves; Matan’s was utterly bare. My husband and I looked at each other and grimaced–cognizant, yet again, of how difficult it is to be new immigrants to the Jewish homeland, whose customs and mores seem both deeply familiar and incomprehensibly foreign.

As I left the gan, my head hung in embarrassment for Matan and for myself, I was reminded of one of my favorite children’s picture books, “Molly’s Pilgrim.” Molly is a Russian immigrant to the Lower East Side of New York. Just before Thanksgiving, her schoolteacher assigns all the students to make a pilgrim doll and bring it to school. When Molly’s mother learns the definition of a pilgrim–a new immigrant who came to America for religious freedom–she creates Molly’s pilgrim in her own image, a babushka-clad woman in a long skirt. The other children tease Molly because her pilgrim looks nothing like theirs, but the kind and sympathetic teacher assures Molly that “it takes all kinds of pilgrims to make a Thanksgiving.”

READ: Everything You Need to Know About Shavuot

And indeed, this is essentially what Matan’s teacher told me at pickup that afternoon, when I apologized that we had sent Matan in the wrong clothes, bearing the wrong basket.

Shavuot is a pilgrimage festival–one of the three holidays when Jews are required to come to the Land of Israel. Like Thanksgiving, which coincided with the American pilgrims’ first successful harvest, it too is a harvest festival and a time of thanksgiving, in which we offer our first fruits in gratitude to God.

This holiday has particular poignancy for us as new immigrants to the State of Israel; we are pilgrims, and our firstborn son Matan is our first fruit. Perhaps it is somewhat appropriate, then, that the basket he paraded across the stage with at gan during the Shavuot celebration was the basket we used to carry out our newborn son at his bris. We are grateful to God for sustaining us and enabling us to reach this day; and we hope that by the time we reach this day with our 1-year-old twins, we will have learned from our mistakes.

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