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First Fruits

May 8, 2009 | by

Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah, has many names. But for me, this year, it is Hag HaBikurim, the Festival of the First Fruits.

In the days when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, the sixth of Sivan was the time when pilgrims brought offerings of the first fruits of their harvest, the seven species for which the Land of Israel is praised. The roads of the land swarmed with pilgrims, all streaming towards Jerusalem and the Temple to offer wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates on the altar of the Holy Temple. Each brought baskets from his place of origin, laden with his own fruits, in gratitude to the One who gave the fruit, the Land, and the Temple in the first place.

This image has always moved me nearly to the point of the point of tears, powerfully, embarrassingly so. Finally I know why. Because this year, I am offering, if you will, my own First Fruits. Nine days before Shavuot, 17 years ago, I became a Jew. This year, our two oldest children, ages 13 and 12, became bar and bat mitzvah. This year, the two of them become spiritually autonomous beings, responsible for both their good deeds and for their transgressions.

My children are the first descendants of my Protestant forebears to be learning Torah.

For any Jew, a child's coming of age is a powerfully moving experience, but for me, it is perhaps especially so. For my children are, indeed, the First Fruits, the first descendants of my Protestant forebears to be learning Torah and doing mitzvot in the Land of Israel.

Just as trees do not bear fruit in a single season, this "fruition" has not come about overnight, but is part of a long process of growth, on my part and theirs -- of a stretching down of roots into the soil of my Land, my People, and our Torah. It is the product of a long series of decisions, sacrifices, and hard work, and now, many years and tears. After all that, there is something of substance to offer.

It would be hard, if not impossible to tell you, in a few words or even in a book, why exactly it was I decided to become Jewish. Somehow, growing up in a completely non-religious family in a very un-Jewish part of the American South, I was drawn to Judaism from little things I read in books or saw on television. I never met any religious Jews until after I had decided to become one myself.

Don't ask me why, it just drew me. Sort of like in Steven Spielberg's film, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" where Richard Dreyfuss suddenly begins to be obsessed with things he's never heard of before. He can't get these things out of his mind no matter how hard he tries, no matter how it disrupts his life.

Eventually, following irresistible signals, he and others arrive at a place where they are picked up by a spaceship piloted by a benevolent alien life form.

I could call my experience "Close Encounters of the Torah Kind."

I could call my experience "Close Encounters of the Torah Kind."

I didn't convert because of my husband. He came along years after I had made the original decision, and I always say he's a wonderful guy, but he wouldn't have been worth converting for. The only one worth it was myself, my own personal existential commitment.

Not knowing any religious Jews at all, let alone any rabbis, I read and read and read about Judaism. When I finally told my parents of my decision to convert, after I turned 18, they weren't exactly surprised: I'd been bringing home Jewish books by the stack since I was 12. "I hope you realize what kind of a step this is," said my Dad, "but I hope they're smart enough to take you."

Flash forward to Israel, to Jerusalem, breaking my teeth on Hebrew at ulpan, planning to stay for a year, meeting my future husband and making that into forever. Forward to the births of my children in Jerusalem, to the Israeli songs and stories I learned through them, to Shavuot and the little paper baskets of fruit they brought home from nursery school. "Baskets on our shoulders," they sang in perfect Hebrew, "Our heads wreathed with flowers/From the far corners of the Land we have come/Bringing the First Fruits."

I wanted to give my children the gift of Judaism in its entirety, and to empower them to inherit it in full. Step by step, my entire life has led to being able to hand it over to them. I may not agree with all their choices after they reach bar and bat mitzvah, but the gift is in their hands now.

On Shavuot, the Torah waits to be received by anyone who truly desires to receive it. Take a close look. You never know what fruits may ripen in the future.


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