Religion & Beliefs
How Cream Cheese Saved The Jews
Kids say the darnedest things. Like how you have to eat bagels and cream cheese or else you will die… Read More
A post-Shavuot tale.
I stepped into class as a collection of 4th graders milled around, everyone standing, the gathered community unwilling to submit to the demand that they be seated until hearing it explicitly. From me. (It is the end of the school year, after all.)
And so I cleared my throat, raised a hand for attention, and waited for obedience, for the mouths to close, for the gathered congregation to assemble quietly.
Now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all the peoples.
Finally, they slid into their desks, hands tapping, feet fidgeting, waiting for the day’s lesson, waiting to hear what would be expected. I instructed them to find chapter 19 in Exodus, to find the story of Mt. Sinai, where the Israelites received–as tradition teaches– the giving of the Torah.
They fumbled clumsily, flipping pages in unison without word, without question.
And all the people replied in unison and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!”
“So, why are we looking at this story?” I queried.
“Shavuot!” several characters in the front screamed in unison.
“Good, good,” I said, grabbing some chalk and drawing circles, the dust flying as several asthmatics clasped their inhalers and cringed. “So, what do we know about Shavuot, huh?”
“It’s after Passover!”
“We got the Torah!”
“We don’t have school!”
I scribbled frantically, filling in circles, webbing their responses as the answers flowed, unscripted. And then I heard this:
“We have to eat cream cheese or we die!”
There were giggles. I wrote the word “dairy” on the board, turned around and saw Rafi grinning as others looked to him, then back to me.
“Or we die?”
“Yeah,” he said excitedly, “we have to eat cream cheese or else God will kill us.”
The giggles transitioned to perplexed looks as I stepped forward, a privately-secular Jewish studies instructor now charged with somehow saving my students from God’s wrath. “Some people do eat dairy on Shavuot, Rafi, but that’s not why.”
“Yes it is. I read it in a book, you have to eat bagels and cream cheese or else you die. That’s what they did at Mt. Sinai, they ate bagels and cream cheese and then God let them live. Cream cheese saved everyone!”
I smiled, the image of New York Jews lounging in a deli at the foot of the mountain, knowing Rafi was confused, was riffing off the traditional idea that the Israelites ate dairy after receiving the Torah in order to keep the new injunction of Kashrut (since, of course, they didn’t have any diary pots out there in the desert, not having had the benefit of wedding registries at Pottery Barn and all).
“So cream cheese saved the Jews?” Stacy, a short girl with glasses, squeaked.
“Cream cheese saved the Jews?” others responded, sarcastically, intent on keeping the meme alive.
The room was ablaze with grins. Everyone on the edge of their seats. Waiting for confirmation.
“Yes,” I said, smiling at Rafi, “yes. Cream cheese saved the Jews.”