Shavuot: The lesson of the cheesecake
I remain inspired by the biblical figure of Naomi in the book of Ruth, the story we read each Shavuot.
Every Shavuot – the biblical harvest festival when it is customary to eat dairy foods – our small beach village in the Western Galilee used to hold a cheesecake contest. A few years ago, my New York-born younger son, Ari, decided to enter his New York-style cheesecake. Not from me did his inspiration come: my idea of a perfect homemade dessert is always one that is baked by somebody else.
Ari, then a soldier in the Israeli Army and on home leave, measured and mixed with the meticulousness of a lab scientist. Just as he slid the cake into the oven, he was called back to his base. He asked me to watch over it, and when the timer went off, I inched the cake out of the oven only to discover a tectonic crack running down its middle.
The cheesecake judges took one look at the cake – and one look at me.
“Those are oleander flowers,” one of the judges scolded. “Don’t you know they’re poisonous?”
How would I know about poisonous oleander flowers? I grew up in Great Neck, New York; we had rhododendron bushes, not oleander.
AS SHAVUOT rolls around this year, I’m again reminded of the lesson of that cheesecake. As a liberal growing up in the 1960s, I was taught to focus on how things should be; but living in the Middle East for the past 20-something years has taught me to see things as they really are. The lesson is simple: beauty often contains danger.
My mother – a smart, perceptive, first-generation American – instilled in me the belief that tikkun olam wasn’t a grandiose idea; each of us is required to do our part to help repair the world. So, when I entered Cornell University in 1974, I was imbued with the sense that I would define my dreams, and achieve them, not despite being young and Jewish and female but for those very reasons. In my idealistic quest, I veered toward leftist politics, abandoning my own people’s causes – such as protesting to free the Jews in the Soviet Union – for other people’s concerns.
My knowledge of Middle East politics was nil, despite taking a course on Jewish nationhood with Professor Benzion Netanyahu, the prime minister’s father. The professor was thoughtful yet subdued, and I didn’t comprehend his emphasis on the Jewish people, the Jewish state. Although I had loved coming to Israel on a summer tour when I was 15, I wanted to stay in America, where Jews, seeming to have won over Americans’ hearts, were in the forefront of many fields.
In fact, I was so blinded by the idea of universalist enlightenment that I even joined a protest against the Shah of Iran in 1977. I admired the passionate fervor in which fellow students spoke out against the Shah. Without any knowledge of the widening gyre of Islamic fundamentalism, I assumed the protesters were calling for a Western-style democracy. Obviously, that was not what followed, and to this day, I wonder what happened to those students. I don’t think the Islamic revolution was kind to them.
I also had the naïve belief that the tragic end of European Jewry in the Holocaust came with the end of hatred against Jews.
Working as a journalist in Paris in 1980-81, I encountered antisemitism for the first time. Like the oleander flower, hidden within French beauty and culture was often virulent disdain for Jews. One woman told me I was condemned to go to hell because I didn’t accept Jesus; others said that Jews ourselves caused people to hate us. Because we did not fit in. Or because we tried so hard to belong.
In 1981, while reporting on Jews who were finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union and were waiting outside of Rome, Italy, for visas to other countries, I met Israeli journalist Noah Klieger, who asked the refugees why they didn’t want to come to Israel. Why not, if Jews finally had a place to call their own after 2,000 years? He asked me the same question, and when I said that there were so many things that seemed wrong in the country, he reminded me that the only way to effect a change is by being there.
So I moved to the Western Galilee to work for peace, thinking that by the time my children were of draft age, there would be an end to the Israel-Arab conflict. I joined peace protests and dialogue groups. A while ago, I went with members of a local group of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze women, to the Golda Meir Center in Haifa to talk with a group of women from the West Bank. It happened to be on Yom HaShoa, Holocaust Day. I invited a Holocaust survivor to speak about her experiences; afterwards, the Palestinian women would talk about theirs. My goal was not to create any kind of equivalence: rather, I hoped to deepen understanding among women as individuals.
But the Palestinian women shouted down the Holocaust survivor as soon as she began to talk. They jumped up and screamed at her, trouncing her voice. I was appalled—and deeply disillusioned. I wasn’t prepared for the danger. I wasn’t prepared for the blanket refusal to have a dialogue. To even listen.
THE CAPACITY to absorb new information is a gift of the scientific revolution, as historian Yuval Noah Harari has noted. Our capacity to understand more, to work together to solve conflicts comes only if we move past restrictive dogma and fundamentalist traditions, approaching one another with tolerance, mutual respect and civil discourse. But ah, those are liberal ideals. Or, what were once liberal ideas. Because when I shared what happened with a leftist Jewish friend who lives in Brooklyn, she said, “Haven’t we heard the Jewish side enough?”
No. Jews who “invisibilize” themselves to accommodate others do not get accommodation in return. We get eradicated. Moreover, this idea of “no-normalization,” denying pro-Israel Jews the right to be heard, has become routine. Alarmingly, the democratic ideal of fostering dialogue and listening to both sides is being crushed under a movement to shut down free speech that is becoming more and more prevalent on college campuses around the world. Covering a recent incident at Williams College, in Massachusetts, in which the student council refused to recognize a pro-Israel group on campus, historian K.C. Johnson noted that all too many students now believe a twisted definition that free speech “is the tyranny of the majority.” (The student council’s decision was eventually overturned by college president Maud Mandel and there is now a sanctioned pro-Israel group on campus.)
Does all this mean that I’ve relinquished my liberal ideals? Not at all. If I give up now, what do I accomplish? I’ve learned that just as I must discern danger within beauty, I must also look for beauty in danger. No matter that Ari is now a vegan and has stopped making cheesecake. I am still trying, in my own small way, to make things better. I remain inspired by the biblical figure of Naomi in the book of Ruth, the story we read each Shavuot. After Naomi’s husband and sons died, she was bereft, but then she arose. Out of our grief over seemingly endless conflicts and religion-fueled wars that threaten the entire earth, we must arise, again and again. That’s our story. That’s our mission.
The writer is a journalist and National Jewish Book Award nominee whose most recent book is A Remarkable Kindness. Twitter: @DianaBletter