He’s a long drink-of-water man washed ashore in his thirties, marooned by the break-up of a relationship and drifting like tumbleweed. We meet a few days before the New Year in December, when I am struggling with a brand-new separation that will soon become divorce. We are both single parents trying desperately to hold onto a sense of normalcy for our kids. John is Catholic; I a Jew.
The next few months finds us meeting whenever possible—sharing secrets, cookies, birthday parties, and field trips to each other’s church and synagogue. Shavuot is John’s first trip to my synagogue, Beth Jacob. My son Josh runs ahead of us to play in the children’s area, and we drop him off there on our way to the sanctuary.
The first thing John sees is the rack of tallises and kippot outside the door. He asks if he should wear them, and I say he can if he likes. He puts on the kippah but not the tallis, which seems right, especially as he’d never tried to wear one before.
We open the door to chanting, and as we near our seats John says, “The Church is old, but this is really ancient.” Nine words that perfectly captured the difference between our two universes. The chanter reads from the Torah, which is at the heart of the Shavuot holiday.
When I think of Shavuot, I think of a waiting crowd at the foot of a mountain. They are waiting for something that will change their lives, but have no idea what it is or how it will reach them. You could almost say that’s what John and I were going through in trying to recreate our lives.
The Torah brought Jews a set of laws that framed almost every aspect of living. I don’t know how it affected the original tribes, but I don’t know anyone now—unless maybe a rabbi—who observes all 613 laws. I do have friends who observe the holidays, and think the net effect of these observances is to create a world outside of time. I’d have to say that’s what I like best about them—riding on a wave that brings you to higher ground, where the realities of the world seem distant and small.
Ironically, the word “Shavuot” means “weeks” so its core meaning is directly related to time. The Torah says it is a mitzvah to count the Omer, or the 50 days leading to Shavuot after Passover, to commemorate the offerings made in ancient times. Counting the Omer is one way to prepare for the Shavuot holiday, and another way to remember how those at Sinai readied themselves to receive Torah.
There is no way, of course, to be ready for most anything else. On this Shavuot holiday, I am missing friends I left behind when I moved to Minnesota, and the feeling of safety I had at my former spouse’s synagogue. All around us are Jewish families, praying, chanting, or laughing together outside in the hall. All around us, time wedges itself up against the holiday and stretches out, waiting for the day to end.
Ahead for me: a New York production of a play, a publishing deal, more plays produced; a new marriage, job changes, a growing son, a new house, the sorrow of watching my elderly parents grow ill and die. Ahead for him: a growing business, a lengthy custody battle, a new direction in politics and a popular blog read avidly on both sides of the aisle. He will also lose his mother and sister to cancer, and see his youngest son win a full scholarship to Berklee School of Music.
Ahead for both of us: Clinton and Hilary, Monica’s dress, Dubya’s election and 9/11; wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and a new level of vicious suicide bombings in Israel. There will also be a new President, health care skirmishes, Arab Spring, and endless conversations about the existence of God.
“Look at your hands,” John says to me one night, when I am sobbing that “I think we may really be alone down here.” He tells me to look at each thumb and finger, at my eyelashes and the color of my hair. “Look how cool they are,” he says. “Who else could do that but God?”
All this lies ahead, as we stand in the sanctuary on my first Shavuot as a single mom. But right now, the hours can only be measured by the chanting of Torah and the knowledge that it will outlast everything we know and dream, as generations count down the days to Shavuot.
After the service, John and I stop by the children’s room and bring Josh outside. My friend Beth approaches and I whisper, “He’s not a boyfriend, in case anyone asks,” thinking people in the congregation might assume things that weren’t true. “I’ll tell them,” Beth says, winking.
The night before, congregants gathered as they do all over the world on the evening before Shavuot. The tradition is to stay up all night with a group of friends, munching dairy snacks and studying Torah. Why dairy? Some say it’s to remember the stories of “milk and honey” waiting in the Promised Land, and others say dairy foods were typically produced during spring festivals like Shavuot.
Knowing people had been up all night studying and celebrating has a profound effect on me; it is, I think, yet another way of defying time. It also speaks volumes about what I am lacking; a community, comfort, longstanding friendships and a shared heritage. At this point, with a young son and a new job, staying up isn’t really possible; but I tell myself there will come a day when I can live this ritual and participate.
For now, there are dairy snacks on the lawn; my son running through the grass playing with other kids; and my Catholic friend, allowing me to see and apprehend my heritage with new eyes. “Lot of beauty here,” he says.
Timeless beauty—bringing both of us to higher ground.