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Less Dairy, More Davening

How I observe Shavuot despite my life-threatening allergy

Avigayil Halpern
May 22, 2015

Since I was 3, I’ve had a life-threatening allergy to dairy. And because Jewish community activities are often centered around food, my Jewish experiences and food restrictions have always been linked. So this year, Shavuot—a holiday during which eating dairy is customary—is laced with a bit of cruel irony because it falls smack in the middle of Food Allergy Awareness month.

I can’t remember a Jewish life that didn’t involve bringing my own snack bags to kiddush at shul, having to ask where the desserts were from at bar mitzvahs, or separating safe food from unsafe food from mishloach manot on Purim. At my Orthodox day school, we sometimes celebrated a siyum by having a party. So when my classmates brought in their food contributions the day before the festivities—as per the school’s kashrut policy, students could only bring in packaged snacks and drinks—my mom would painstakingly read the ingredient labels of the foods my friends brought in, in order to judge whether or not they were safe for me to eat.

The laws of Kashrut, which dictate that meat and dairy must be kept separate, have been of tremendous benefit to me. After all, it’s rare that a kid with a peanut allergy has easy access to food cooked in peanut-free kitchens all the time. But the separation of dairy for religious reasons does not always overlap with my safety needs. A minimal amount of dairy can make it into kosher “pareve” foods and not change their status vis-a-vis kashrut—but even a tiny amount is dangerous for me. This has led to many an awkward situation, as hosts will often insist that I should be able to eat something because “it’s pareve!”

On Shavuot, reminders of my potentially fatal allergy to dairy becomes ever-present. From my Facebook news feed, it would seem that the only purpose of the holiday is to eat cheesecake. Other traditional elements of Shavuot fall by the wayside in favor of creamy, milk-based desserts. Jewish sites share blintz recipes more than divrei Torah, and people tweet about their meals, not their learning plans.

Food is an integral part of the Jewish experience—I can’t imagine what my world would look like were if not punctuated by challah with honey on Rosh Hashana, latkes on Hanukkah, and hamantaschen on Purim—but perhaps the Jewish community should refocus its priorities. Because Shavuot puts my dairy allergy in sharp focus, I worry that the Jewish community is concentrating too much on consuming specific foods and less on the beautiful teachings of the holiday.

Shavuot has much to offer beyond cheesecake. It marks the day when we entered into a treaty with God, so we stay up until dawn studying so as not to miss the giving of the Torah in the morning as our ancestors midrashically did. And we wreath our synagogues and homes in flowers to memorialize the decorations on Mount Sinai. Judaism is a religion rich in ritual and culture—so much deeper than merely what we eat—and I worry that these traditions are being washed away.

Normally, given the custom of eating meat-based meals on Shabbat and holidays, my food allergy is simply a footnote to my religious practice; but on Shavuot, I’m reminded that our normative communal structures are often exclusionary. By exploring the roots of these customs, Jewish communities can help to create more inclusive communities. This Shavuot, consider spending more time discussing Torah and less time discussing cheese, which will unleash the inclusive potential of Judaism in your community.

Avigayil Halpern is a student at Midreshet Ein Hanatziv in Israel and will be starting at Yale University in the fall.