For the first seventeen years of my life Shavuot had little meaning to me as a Jewish holiday. Rather, it was a time for religious school graduations, always held on the Sunday closest to the holiday. Those graduations were called confirmations. The idea for them was probably taken from the Catholic religion which has their teenagers affirm their faith in a religious ceremony also called confirmation.
Since I came from a big, extended family I remember going to many confirmation ceremonies throughout my childhood. My own confirmation took place when I was fifteen-years-old. Relatives came for the day from Oklahoma and Missouri. I had a new white dress, carried a bouquet of flowers, and confirmed my commitment to Judaism.
I suppose it was that commitment which prompted me to be among the group of students who accepted the Shavuot invitation. The invitation was extended by one of the day school teachers in the Phoenix Day School to me and other students from Arizona State University. This teacher was a most charismatic man and his wife was an outstanding cook. In addition, he stressed that we would be staying up all night Shavuot learning Torah. This, he told us, was the most important custom of the holiday.
Pulling all-nighters has never been a big deal for college students but he made it sound so intriguing. He got a nice group of us to come. Benita, the oldest of our group, was not all that interested in celebrating the Jewish holiday. Rather, since she would be graduating the following month, she wanted as many interesting experiences as she could find before she left Arizona.
So after a delicious holiday meal, we followed the teacher to the synagogue where he had a handful of adults and numbers of excited school-age children. I really don’t remember all that much learning. I do remember there were some fun conversations and interesting discussions. Around five in the morning, a little before sunrise, it was time to go home. Well, not home, but to the teacher’s house. We all had brought sleeping bags and were going to camp out on his living room carpet for a few hours until he would wake us to go back to the synagogue for morning services.
The sky was not yet light as we followed him home. He sort of resembled a piped piper. Instead of a cap with a feather he had a velvet yarmulke. In place of a flute he held books of learning. We must have made an interesting sight, so much so that a police cruiser did a u-turn, stopped, and an officer of the law emerged.
“What are you doing out at this time of night?” he asked sternly.
A few of us giggled as the teacher tried to explain Shavuot to this man who had probably never met a Jew before.
He was not at all impressed. “How old are all of you?” The officer frowned at us.
“Eighteen,” I mumbled.
“Nineteen,” another offered.
“I’m twenty-one!” Benita announced boldly looking the officer straight in the eye.
“You are the only one of age,” the policemen glared at her. “The rest of you are out after curfew.”
“When does curfew end?” The teacher asked, somewhat nervously.
None of us were giggling any longer. Were we going to get hauled into detention for breaking curfew? Would we get a ticket? What would our parents say? The officer grumbled a few more minutes and decided to let us off with a stern warning. “Don’t let this happen again.”
Chastened, we walked home quietly and collapsed on the floor. I don’t think any of us got up in time to go to morning services with the teacher. We rolled out of our sleeping bags just in time to have another delicious holiday meal. And that was my first real Shavuot. I have never forgotten it and I have never, ever again stayed up all night to learn. I leave that custom to my husband and children, do my learning during the day, and still manage to still have a meaningful holiday that commerates the giving of the Torah. How I do that is for another article.