The May issue of The Atlantic features a hilarious story about how the scientific world has reacted to a series of prestigious nutrition studies showing a connection between eating a half cup of ice cream every week and improved resistance to diabetes. This startling result, though what statisticians call “robust,” never made it to any press releases, which instead tended to focus on less mind-bending effects such as the health benefits of yogurt. The article, though funny, made a serious point about the difficulty even scientists have in reporting data without shaping it to strong preconceptions; it wasn’t, of course, presented as an article to enhance Jewish readers’ enjoyment of the holiday of Shavuot, which starts tonight and runs through Saturday, signaling the end of the seven-week period between Passover and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
But it’s a great Shavuot story all the same, not only because of the wide though disputed belief that there is a higher incidence of diabetes among Ashkenazi Jews—mostly because of genetics, with perhaps a dollop of help from Ashkenazi Jews’ greater likelihood of consuming sweet, fatty Ashkenazi cuisine—but because Shavuot, at least for families with children, is the ice cream holiday. (Ashkenazi Jews also seem to have a higher incidence of lactose intolerance, but let’s try not to think about that.) Adding ice cream to any synagogue event is good for attendance (“ice cream Shabbat” has also become a feature of many synagogue calendars), and that’s especially useful for a holiday that, other than eating dairy, has no particular home observance attached to it. My family’s religious life may still be recovering, years later, from my rash decision to take three children under six to an unexpectedly rigorous event advertised as “Reading of the Ten Commandments Followed by Ice Cream Bash.”
If ice cream is actually good for you, that’s just the latest of a heap of reasons to eat dairy on the upcoming holiday. And what are those reasons? The tradition of eating dairy foods on Shavuot—think cheese blintzes and cheesecakes as well as ice cream—has obscure origins. So, of course, explanations abound, historical, sociological and folkloric. My favorite, as the food blogger Lori Riegel explained in a Moment “Talk of the Table” a few years ago, is that when Moses delivered the Torah on Mount Sinai, it already contained the dietary laws in every detail, and the assembled folk “would have needed time to kasher (make fit or proper) all of their dishes, utensils and vessels” so as to prepare and serve kosher meat: “Hence, the custom of eating a dairy meal developed.”
If that’s too goofy for you, you can go with more straightforward explanations that eating dairy probably reflects the pre-biblical origins of the holiday as a spring harvest festival, or that it has something to do with the promise of a land of “milk and honey.” And although Shavuot requires no home activity, such as making Seder or lighting a menorah, it encourages cooking, like all holidays. You can get crazy and try another “Talk of the Table” recipe for savory smoked trout cheesecake. Or you can go with the more traditional Eli’s variant.
And if you want more on the origin of the custom of consuming dairy, you can always turn to study, incidentally observing yet another traditional Shavuot practice that has taken hold increasingly in recent years: the all-night study session, or “Leyl Tikkun Shavuot,” held at many synagogues and in other Jewish spaces, real and virtual. When I first encountered this practice in my 20s, it struck me as evidence that whatever bad habit you’re struggling with, there’s a Jewish holiday that requires it: If you have food issues, you can feast or fast throughout the calendar; if you tend to procrastinate and pull all-nighters, then Shavuot will keep you up all night with your friends, getting increasingly bleary-eyed, and cap it with a Torah service at dawn, so you can personally share in the experience of the Jews at Sinai who waited all night for the Revelation.
However you celebrate the holiday, enjoy it! And if you want yet another excuse to eat even more cheesecake or maybe an ice cream cake, then you can always break out a birthday treat on May 27 for the evidently still cogent and prolific Ashkenazi Jewish Henry Kissinger, celebrating his 100th birthday mid-holiday. Dairy or not, something’s keeping him going.