Shavuot, which begins tonight, is the holiday of dairy food. Why? No one really knows, although many reasons have been offered. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Shavuot marks the time the Jews were camped out on Mount Sinai waiting to get the kosher laws. Since the rules on proper animal slaughter hadn’t been given, they choose to keep it simple and stick to dairy the night before the Torah was given.
In general, Jewish holidays involve meat: think of brisket, roast chicken, etc. The Talmudic rabbis believed that the joy of Shabbat and holidays is nothing other than meat and wine. Not everyone is going to agree with that sentiment, including vegetarians and those who keep kosher but like to have genuine ice cream for dessert (not imitation Tofutti).
While meat and dairy meals have different tastes, until today I never thought that they have different personalities, but a new book, called The Dairy Restaurant by Ben Katchor, may change that. His 500-page illustrated history of Jewish eating presents the idea that the dairy restaurant was a place with a particular atmosphere, distinct from the meat deli.
For Katchor the dairy place was middle class, utilitarian, slower, whereas the meat restaurant is bustling and fast-paced. While the Jewish deli survived, and has even seen a revival with acclaimed chefs taking on the challenge of elevating Eastern European meat cuisine, the same cannot be said for the lowly dairy joint.
Just yesterday at a wonderful Zoom birthday call that my wife organized, my brother told a story about how our family went to the late, lamented Ratner’s dairy restaurant on the Lower East Side in the early eighties. It was my first time in such an establishment, and as a kid I was a very picky eater. All I ordered was hard boiled eggs, only to have the elderly waiter berate me: “How can you come to Ratner’s, with our huge menu, and just order hard boiled eggs?” Growing up in San Antonio, I was not used to such treatment from restaurant staff, and unfortunately I can’t go back now and order something more interesting.
For Katchor the dairy place was where the intellectual hung out, “[t]he person for whom thought is more important than getting something done.” I wonder then if this is the reason we eat dairy on Shavuot, the holiday of Torah and study. Some have the tradition to stay up all night learning. No matter our profession, on Shavuot we are all intellectuals hanging out in a dairy restaurant disguised as our home.
There is one other unique aspect to choosing a dairy meal: the options it provides. If you eat a meat meal you are locked into meat or parve foods for an extended period of time before you can have milk (no delicious ice cream for dessert). But if you choose dairy you can have meat almost immediately after.
Dairy doesn’t close you off to the possibilities of life, and this idea is reflected in the Yiddish language. Katchor cites the expression “make something fleishedik [meat]”, which means “[m]ake it official”. Dairy, on the other hand, is fluid, changing, contingent – just like Torah. On Shavuot, perhaps we eat milk and cheese to remind us that our study of the tradition is only limited by our mind’s imagination.