Festive Shavuot Sutlage (Rice Pudding)

— by Ronit Treatman

Shavuot is like sealing the deal on a marriage contract. It is the celebration of G-d’s giving of the Torah to the Jews at Mount Sinai. This is the moment when the Jews became a nation, when they accepted G-d’s commandments and pledged to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” (Exodus 19:6). Like any other wedding, the most important question is, “What did they eat?”

Rice-milk pudding recipe after the jump.
In Exodus 33:3, G-d tells Moses to go to the land which had been promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “Unto a land flowing with milk and honey.” It is said that when G-d gave the Torah, there was no time to perform kosher shechita (slaughter), and immersion of meat in salt water. The Ancient Israelites celebrated with a dairy meal. It is still traditional to serve dairy dishes on the first night of Shavuot.  

One of the most popular desserts among Jews of the Middle East is the Sutlage (in Turkey and the Balkans), or Muhallabeya (in North Africa). It is a milk pudding prepared with ground rice. The basic rice pudding is a blank canvas to which each celebrant adds his or her own special garnish.

Sutlage or Muhallabeya

  • 5 1/2 cups of cold milk
  • 1/4 cup of brown or white rice flour
  • 1/2 cup honey
  1. Place all the ingredients in a pot. Bring to a boil, while mixing. Cover the pot, and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  
  2. The fun for your family and guests is personalizing the garnishes. They can add any combination of the following:
    • Ground cinnamon
    • Chopped almonds
    • Chopped pistachios
    • Chopped walnuts
    • Chopped hazelnuts
    • Coconut flakes
    • Sultana raisins
    • Chopped dates
    • Chopped figs
    • Ground saffron
    • Lemon zest
    • Orange blossom water (use only a drop)
    • Rose water (use only a drop)
    • Vanilla
    • Ground cardamom
    • Pomegranate seeds

It is traditional to serve this rice-milk pudding chilled. This recipe is naturally gluten-free.

Counting the Omer: A Modern Revival of an Ancient Jewish Practice

Omer calendars for Israel and Diaspora courtesy of Judaica artist Jonathan Kremer.

— by Carol Towarnicky

As Passover approaches, an increasing number of modern Jews are preparing not only for their annual seders but also for “Counting the Omer,” an ancient practice of blessing each of the 49 days between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot.

An Omer is a measure of barley. In Biblical times, the Counting of the Omer marked the time between the barley and wheat harvests. Every night during that period, farmers would wave an Omer to plead for an abundant crop. Over time, the agricultural ritual was replaced by liturgy, and the counting became a way to mark the Israelites’ journey from bondage in Egypt to revelation at Mount Sinai. For the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Counting of the Omer became a time of spiritual exploration and cleansing, a way to prepare the soul for revelation. The mystics divided the time into seven weeks, with each week containing a specific spiritual quality. On each of the 49 days, two of the qualities intersect with each other, making each day is unique.  

After the jump: Rabbi Yael Levy’s book on the subject
Rabbi Yael Levy, founder of A Way In, a Jewish Mindfulness Center based in Philadelphia and author of Journey Through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer (Volume 1), has re-imagined the counting as a Mindfulness practice: paying attention not only to each day as it passes but also to the individual spiritual qualities that were assigned to it by the 16th century Jewish mystics.

“The counting helps us to pay attention to the movement of our lives,” says Rabbi Levy. “Counting the Omer helps us notice the subtle shifts in our lives, the big changes, all the yearnings, strivings, disappointments, hopes and fears.”

Journey Through the Wilderness is available in paperback through Amazon, and as an e-book via Smashwords and other e-booksellers. The publication includes daily blessings in both Hebrew and English and teachings and intentions for each day.

A Way In is also offering a range of online and social media support for individuals who wish to count the Omer, including free daily emails, blog entries and Facebook posts and insightful Twitter messages and reminders.

Rabbi Levy has been exploring the Mindfulness potential of Counting the Omer for more than a decade, in particular during time she spends each year backpacking alone in the red rock desert of southern Utah. She also leads an annual five-day retreat at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, that takes place at the end of the Omer 49-day period.  

Rabbi Levy points out that the Hebrew word for “desert wilderness” — midbar — is written the same as the word for “speaks” — medaber. “The mystics teach that when we leave our routines, habits and expectations and allow ourselves to go into the unknown, to traverse the wilderness of mind and spirit, we open ourselves to receive Divine guidance.”  

A relatively new development in Judaism, Jewish Mindfulness combines meditation, movement and spiritual practice that draws on Jewish text and tradition. As part of A Way In, Rabbi Levy leads twice-monthly contemplative Shabbat services, weekly meditation “sits,” retreats, classes and individual and group spiritual direction, plus an online community.  

A Way In Jewish Mindfulness program grew out of Rabbi Levy's work at Mishkan Shalom congregation, a Reconstructionist synagogue in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia where Rabbi Levy has been associated for 19 years. A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Levy has co-led retreats in Alaska for Jewish professionals through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She is also a spiritual director to rabbinical students in both the Reconstructionist and Reform movements and in private practice.

Young Olim from U.S. Celebrate Their First Shavuot in Israel

— by Jake Sharfman

(Jerusalem) As the Jewish holiday of Shavuot approaches this weekend, Nefesh B’Nefesh, which works in close cooperation with the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and the Jewish Agency for Israel, organized a special celebration yesterday in Ein Yael, Jerusalem for new Olim to better prepare them for their first Shavuot in Israel.

At the event, the children, accompanied by their parents and Nefesh B’Nefesh staff, prepared for Shavuot by assembling delicious baskets of fruit, which is a customary tradition in Israel during this period.

“I’m so excited to be celebrating my first Shavuot in Israel,” said seven year old Nachi Jerozolim, who made Aliyah with his parents from Woodmere, NY last August. “It is so much fun to be living in a Jewish country where everyone around me is getting ready to celebrate the same holiday.”

Photo Credit: Jared Bernstein Photography courtesy of Nefesh B’Nefesh.

Shavuot Centerpiece: The Savory Cheesecake

One Local Summer wk 11: zucchini ricotta cheesecake (whole)— by Ronit Treatman

Traditionally, Shavuot is celebrated with sweet cheesecakes and blintzes, redolent of cinnamon, raisins, and sugar.  It is what we eat as we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Sinai.  The basic unsweetened cheesecake is a neutral palette.  It invites creativity!  Many cultures have a tradition of preparing savory cheesecakes.  For this year’s celebration, surprise your guests with something a little out of the ordinary.  Prepare a piquant cheesecake for a special holiday treat.

More after the jump.
The Ancient Greeks are credited with inventing the cheesecake.  Archaeologists discovered cheese molds from 2000 BCE on the island of Samos.  In Ancient Greece, cheesecake was prepared for Olympic athletes.  The most ancient recipe for cheesecake was written down by the Greek physician Aegimus.  The ingredients for his cake were cheese, honey, and flour.  He instructed cooks to pound the cheese and honey together with a mortar and pestle.  Flour was to be added to form a type of batter.  The resulting dough was baked in a wood-burning oven.  This cheesecake was believed to give the athletes energy.

In 146 BCE Rome conquered Greece.  The Romans adopted the cheesecake, and added a few special touches to it.  They mixed the cheese with eggs, and lined the baking vessel with fresh bay leaves.  Marcus Cato, a Roman politician, was the first to record a recipe for this cake called libum.  Below is an excerpt from his agricultural writings in which he explains how to prepare libum.

Libum to be made as follows: 2 pounds cheese well crushed in a mortar; when it is well crushed, add in 1 pound bread-wheat flour or, if you want it to be lighter, just 1/2 a pound, to be mixed with the cheese. Add one egg and mix all together well. Make a loaf of this, with the leaves under it, and cook slowly in a hot fire under a brick.”

The Romans spread the cheesecake throughout their empire.  Each new place added its own special touch to the recipe, transforming it.  Today there are many cheesecake recipes from all over the world.  Here are some savory cheesecake recipes you may prepare for your degustation this Shavuot.

Savory Cheesecake With Caramelized Shallots And Olives
Adapted from The Chubby Vegetarian

For the crust:

  • 1 ½ cups breadcrumbs (or ground almonds for a gluten-free crust)
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves

For the filling:

  • 3 eggs
  • 6 oz. soft goat cheese
  • 15 oz. ricotta cheese
  • ¼ cup white wine
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1-teaspoon fresh, minced rosemary
  • Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  
  2. Oil a 9′ spring form pan.
  3. Grind all the crust ingredients together in a food processor.  
  4. Press this paste to the bottom of the baking pan.
  5. Bake the crust for about 7 minutes.
  6. Remove the crust from the oven.
  7. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a saucepan.
  8. Sautée the shallots until they are golden-brown.
  9. Add the wine, and reduce the heat.  
  10. Simmer until all the wine is absorbed.
  11. Place this shallot mixture and all the other filling ingredients in a food processor.
  12. Mix into a paste.
  13. Pour the cheese mixture over the crust.
  14. Bake for 50 minutes.
  15. Allow to cool.

Serve garnished with assorted cured olives, aged balsamic vinegar, and fresh parsley.

maple cheesecakeStilton Cheesecake
Adapted from My Recipes

  • 4 oz. Stilton cheese
  • 16 oz. cream cheese
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 1-tablespoon flour (or ground almonds for a gluten-free recipe)
  • 2 eggs
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ¼ tsp. garlic powder
  • ½ tsp. dry marjoram
  • ½ tsp. dry parsley
  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Oil a muffin pan.
  3. Mix all the ingredients in a mixer.
  4. Pour the batter into the muffin pan, filling each cup completely.
  5. Bake for 40 minutes.
  6. After the Stilton cheesecakes cool, refrigerate for 4 hours.

Serve cold, garnished with toasted walnuts.

Florentine Cheesecake
Adapted from Yummly

For the crust:

  • 8 tbsp. butter
  • 2 cups breadcrumbs (or ground almonds for a gluten-free recipe).

For the filling:

  • 1-¼ cups grated Gruyere cheese
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 20 oz. cream cheese
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • 4 eggs
  • ¼ cup chopped scallion
  • 10 oz., baby spinach leaves
  • ½ tsp. Dijon mustard
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • ¼ tsp. paprika

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Mix the breadcrumbs and butter.
  3. Press this dough into an oiled 9′ spring form pan.
  4. Bake for approximately 10 minutes, until it just starts to brown.
  5. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
  6. Microwave the baby spinach leaves for 3 minutes in a covered glass container.
  7. Mix the cooked spinach with the rest of the ingredients in a large bowl.
  8. Pour the cheese mixture over the crust.
  9. Bake for 65 minutes.

Serve warm with fresh sliced fruit.

For an easy-to-prepare yet exotic feast, try a savory cheesecake this Shavuot.  With the addition of some fresh baguettes and a crisp green salad, a savory cheesecake becomes the centerpiece of an unforgettable Shavuot feast.

Counting Your Way From Passover To Shavuot

Jonathan Kremer has designed a new Omer calendar for us this year.

Begin counting at the second seder and continue counting each night preceding the next day. (Yom tov and Shabbat begin the evening before the graphic.) Before you know it, it’ll be time to celebrate Shavuot!

Rabbi Jonathan Kremer studied at Jewish Theological Seminar following in the footsteps of his daughter Rabbi Aviva Fellman. Jonathan currently serves as rabbi for Beth Israel Congregation in Lexington Park, Maryland while Aviva serves as assistant rabbi at Oceanside Jewish Center in Oceanside, New York. The Forward has named Aviva as one of America’s 28 most inspiring rabbis this year.

See more of Jonathan’s art at www.jonathankremer.com.  

Homemade Goat Cheese For Shavuot


by Ronit Treatman

Mmmm Shavuot.  The sweet smell of cheese blintzes and the sound of butter crackling in the frying pan fill the house.  Bright red strawberry preserves are on the table, ready to be served with the delicious filled crepes.  Why do we have the tradition of eating dairy foods during Shavuot?  Shavuot is a celebration of the Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah to the Israelites.  King Solomon described the pleasure of Torah as “honey and milk are under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11).  The first iteration of this celebratory meal was homemade goat cheese, sweetened with honey or fruit.  We can explore those primeval flavors as we indulge in the sweet study of Torah on Shavuot night.  
One of the first animals domesticated by early humans was the goat.  In Jericho, evidence of goats kept by Neolithic farmers demonstrates that they were part of the household between 8000 and 9000 years ago. Goats were the main providers of milk in Ancient Israel.  Milk, butter, and cheese were available seasonally, in the spring and summer.

Goat cheese has been made for as long as goats have been domesticated.  In Ancient Israel, raw goat milk probably curdled naturally. This process occurred thanks to two benign bacterial strains:   Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus.  These are soil-based probiotics, which are often present in the milk.  The curdled milk was poured into a cloth bag.  The whey (residual liquid) was drained out of the bag, and the remaining curds were pressed into a soft cheese.  Equally old was the tradition of storing milk in goatskin containers.  Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus are present on the skin of the goats.   These bacteria combined with the raw milk in the warm Mediterranean climate, causing it to ferment.  The milk curdled quickly, and was transformed into laban, a thick, sour milk.  A hard cheese was made with fermented laban.  The laban was poured into molds and left to harden in the sun.  Israelite shepherds accidentally discovered another way to make cheese.  When they heated the milk, they stirred it with fig tree branches.  Only a few drops of fig sap needed to get into the milk in order to coagulate it.  Fig sap contains ficin, an enzyme whose clotting activity in milk is thirty to one hundred times that of animal rennet.  The Mishna and Talmud describe using the sap of fruit trees to make cheese.  This process of making cheese was adopted instead of using animal rennet in order to comply with the prohibition of mixing meat and milk.  This recipe has been recreated at Neot Kedumim, Israel’s Biblical Landscape Reserve.

Ancient Israelite Cheese from Neot Kedumim

  • 1 Quart goat milk. You can buy goat’s milk at Whole Foods, or order it online.
  • 1 fig branch thoroughly washed.  Cut it right before using.

Pour the milk into a pot.  Squeeze 5 drops of sap from the fig branch, being very careful not to touch the sap.  Fig sap may cause a rash, like poison ivy.

Heat the milk until it boils, stirring it with the fig branch.  

Once the milk has curdled, allow it to cool.

Strain the curds through a cheesecloth.

Goats are very curious, intelligent animals.  Their favorite way to eat is to explore their surroundings, tasting weeds and shrubs.  They like to taste a variety of plants.  The plants consumed by the goats influence the flavor of their milk. If they eat bitter weeds, their milk will be bitter too.   Eating a variety of weeds gives their milk a more complex flavor.

Milk from goats has small, well-emulsified fat globules.  This means that the cream does not rise to the top as it does with raw cow’s milk, but rather remains mixed in with the milk.  As a result, goat’s milk does not need to be homogenized (mixed so that the fat droplets do not separate from the milk).  It is more similar to milk produced by humans than milk from a cow.  Due to this, goat milk is a good choice for young children, people who are ill, and anyone who has trouble digesting cow’s milk.  Goat milk contains 13% more calcium than cow’s milk, 25% more vitamin B6, and 47% more vitamin A.  

I learned how to make my own goat cheese from my friend Freyda Black.  Freyda bought her first Nubian goat from the partner of a chef at the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York.  She taught herself how to make cheese.  When she took some of her home made chevre to the Moosewood chef and his partner to have a taste, they told her it was better than the award winning cheeses from France and Germany.  

Freyda Black’s Goat’s Milk Ricotta

  • 1-gallon goat milk (whole or skim)
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Baking soda

Pour the milk into a very heavy bottomed pot, or double boil it over a low flame.  Slowly heat the milk to 186 degrees Fahrenheit.

When the milk is 186 degrees, pour in 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar while stirring.

Stir until the milk starts to curd.  You should see large curds.  If it doesn’t start to curd, add more vinegar, one teaspoon at a time.

Put cheesecloth over a colander.  Pour the curds and whey into it.  

Gather up the ends of the cheesecloth, and drain for no more than one minute.

Pour the curds back into the pot and add one half teaspoon of baking soda.  This will neutralize the acid and stop the curdling.

Serve immediately.  

Freyda Black’s Goat’s Milk Queso Blanco

Repeat the process for Ricotta.

Omit the baking soda, and allow the Ricotta cheese to drain overnight.

This is a recipe that Sephardic Jews brought to the New World from Spain and Portugal.  They would pair the queso blanco with sweet preserved fruits, such as pears and quinces.  In South America, the queso blanco was also served with guava preserves.  

For an authentic Ancient Israelite Shavuot experience, flavor your homemade ricotta or queso blanco with raw bee’s honey, or Biblical date “honey,” available  online

Have fun preparing it with your family, and eat it while it’s hot!

If you would like to meet Freyda Black and her Nubian goats,  please come to Germantown Jewish Centre on June 5th, from 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM.  She will demonstrate how to make fresh goat cheese.  There will be goat milk, cheese, and whey for everyone to taste.  Free!  Everyone welcome!

Maryland Supreme Court To Hear Religious Freedom Case

Orthodox Jewish plaintiff claims court’s refusal to recess trial over Shavuot violated his religious rights.
— Rabbi Avi Shafan

A Silver Spring, Maryland Orthodox Jew’s claim that judges in the Montgomery County Circuit Court violated his religious rights by refusing to recess his medical malpractice suit over the Jewish holiday of Shavuos is now before the state’s highest court.

Alexander Neustadter is charging that the judges considered the “efficiency of the docket” to trump his need to observe the Jewish holiday, which observance includes restrictions that prevented him from appearing in court.

Agudath Israel of America filed a “friend of the court” brief  in the Maryland Court of Appeals in support of Mr. Neustadter’s position.  The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s protection of citizen’s free exercise of religion, the brief claims, well covers cases like the one being considered by the Appeals Court.  It notes that Mr. Neustadter filed a number of motions calling the court’s attention to his inability to appear in court during the two days of Shavuos, and the similar inability of his lawyer, who would be acting as his agent, to attend the trial on those days.  The motions were denied.

Although the Agudath Israel brief makes clear that the organization takes no position on Mr. Neustadter’s malpractice suit itself, it takes strong issue with a contention made by the defendant in the suit that the holiday of Shavuos is strictly observed only by “a subsect of the Orthodox Jewish faith” – an assertion Agudath Israel calls “completely untrue and legally irrelevant.”  As to what is legally relevant, the Orthodox group’s brief cites U.S. Supreme Court rulings that being forced to choose between a religious obligation and a court penalty generally constitutes an abrogation of an American’s religious rights.

Only a “compelling state interest,” the brief continues, can legally justify such an abrogation of a fundamental right – and the “efficient and orderly administration of justice” – which the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the intermediate appellate court, ruled justified the lower court’s rejection of Mr. Neustadter’s motions – does not satisfy that requirement.

Although there are in fact scattered legal precedents for considering the efficient administration of justice to trump individual rights, the Agudath Israel brief cites the particular cases and explains how each of them is qualitatively different from the case before the court.

The Agudath Israel brief was authored by the organization’s Washington Office director and counsel, Rabbi Abba Cohen, Steven A. Loewy, a prominent Rockville, Maryland attorney, assisted by Agudath Israel legal intern Miss Jenny Figa.

“The courts of our country are looked up to by the public as the guardians of the laws of our country,” the Agudath Israel submission concludes. “If a court can trample on an individual’s ability to observe his religion, as was done in this case, the message to employers, teachers, and all others in positions of authority over others is clear: interests of efficiency are more important than respecting an individual’s religious observances.”