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Shavuot: Bringing In The Sheaves On Celluloid from the Spielberg Archives
By Wendy Luterman
Shavuot, one of Judaism’s three pilgrimage festivals together with Pessah and Sukkot, is celebrated on the 6th of Sivan. The festival marks the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the end of the counting of the Omer, the beginning of the wheat harvest and the day on which the first fruits were offered in the Temple.
The Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive vaults provide a fascinating look at how the festival of Shavuot is portrayed in Zionist documentary films from the 1930s. This article sets out to explore which of these aspects of Shavuot are accentuated and how this serves this philosophy of the Zionist movement. The article focuses on films digitized by the Archive and available on the Archive’s You Tube channel.
Most of the films highlight the festival’s agricultural facets. These take the form of pageants, dances and parades in which new produce from the kibbutzim is presented. In ancient times, Shavuot marked the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest at which time Jewish farmers brought their first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem. The secular kibbutz movement revitalized this ancient custom. It was conceived as way of giving ancient traditions new meaning and coincided with its philosophy of working the land and the image of the “New Jew” in contrast to the observance of religious, traditional practices which were seen as un-modern and even primitive. Recurring motifs include members and often children wearing white, the symbol of purity bearing fruit, vegetables, flowers and livestock, wagons and tractors laden with produce and beautiful dance performances.
In the Keren Hayesod film Settling In Palestine (1930), pioneers from Kibbutz Beit Alpha and the Nahalal Agricultural School present produce and drive new agricultural vehicles.
In Palestine In Song And Dance (1931), well known singer Chana Kipnis and a dance troupe entertain children at the “Children’s Festival in the Land of the Bible: Dance of the First Fruits”. Many of these festivities were local, celebrated in individual kibbutzim but in Land Of Promise (1935), the festivities were centralized. Pioneers from neighboring kibbutzim, such as Kibbutz Yagur and Kibbutz Gan Zvi (no longer in existence), congregated in Haifa. The holiday was celebrated with an agricultural parade, floats and dancing. Many Haifa residents packed the streets to watch the extravaganza. Interestingly, the narration in this motion picture refers to Shavuot as the day of “Palestinian thanksgiving” comparing it to the American celebration of Thanksgiving in November. In the Great Promise (1947), kibbutz children hold a harvest festival during which they play flutes and dance.
In the kibbutz collections of Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, Sassa, Ma’agan Michael, Ha’Ogen, Kvutzat Kinneret and Ma’anit, scenes were filmed of first fruit celebrations in which the same motifs are reiterated. No less significant for the future of the kibbutz, in some of these films babies who have been born during the year, are also exhibited.
The same work ethos and emphasis on working and revitalizing the land that defined early kibbutzim, was also developed in youth villages where teenagers trained to become agriculturalists and to build new kibbutzim. Working the land in Eretz Yisrael was seen as the rehabilitative answer for orphaned survivors of the Holocaust as is very poignantly portrayed in Adamah (1947). In Hadassah’s remake of the film, Tomorrow’s A Wonderful Day, children and teenagers in Ben Shemen Youth Village hold their own ceremony in which fruits and vegetables are presented.
There are delightful scenes of the celebration of the festival of first fruits in Hadassim youth village, east of Netanya, with the participation of students and the staff’s young children. At the impressive ceremony, students displayed their artistic work in addition to agricultural produce. During the ceremony, students acting as Temple high priests read verses from the Torah, received the produce and made a symbolic offering to the Jewish National Fund, the national redeemer of land in Israel. This act emphasizes the secular movement’s modernization of ancient traditions. At the end of the ceremony, doves are released as a symbol of peace.
Shavuot literally means “weeks” referring to the forty nine days between Passover and Shavuot. According to the Torah (Leviticus. 23:15), Jews are obligated to count these days known as the Omer. An omer is a unit of measure. On the second day of Passover, in the days of the Temple, an omer of barley was cut down and brought to the Temple as an offering. This ancient practice was also revived by the secular kibbutz movement even though we have no Temple as is beautifully illustrated in Omer Dancing in Ramat Yohanan (1950s). Members of Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan near Kiryat Ata annually celebrate the omer with a dance festival in the spring. However, the processions and dancing portrayed in this film are reminiscent of the Shavuot festivities held on other kibbutzim.
Although not directly connected to Shavuot festivities, two films in the Spielberg collection celebrate the harvest in song. In Songs Of Israel: Harvest in Galilee (1952), the bleak desert found before the pioneers began working the land is contrasted to a prosperous wheat field in Kibbutz Dan. The Ayelet Hashachar Choir sings while harvesting the wheat. Similarly pioneers are seen working in vineyards and harvesting grapes in Shir Habotzrim (1955) to the background of a song acclaiming the harvest. This Is The Land (1935) by Baruch Agadati is the first talkie made in Eretz Yisrael and features singers Yosef Goland and Chana Kipnis. The film was recently restored by the Spielberg Archive. The last scenes of the film, wonderfully illustrate the abundant harvest and climaxes in a group of young pioneers dancing in the fields of celebration of a successful harvest.
In addition to its agricultural significance, Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. After festive evening prayers and often a festive dairy meal, many people follow the custom of staying awake all night and studying religious texts. Most synagogues and yeshivot will organize special classes and lectures throughout the night of Shavuot. In Jerusalem, there is a popular custom of going to the Western Wall. The Shavuot morning prayers are marked by special hymns and scriptural readings, including the Book of Ruth. Some communities maintain the custom of decorating their synagogues with green plants and flowers.
In Holidays in Israel: Feast of the First Fruit: Shavuot (not Archive copyright) produced by Yehoshua Brandstatter and Zeev Havatzelet and in As Long As I Live there are scenes of the Torah being read in decorated synagogues in addition to the agricultural pageants on kibbutzim. These two films are among the few in the Spielberg Archive which deal with all aspects of the festival and not only emphasize the agricultural connection. Since, the festival celebrates the giving of the Torah, of interest is a film depicting the work of the sofer stam, the Torah scribe as well as an extremely rare close up view of an ancient 1800 year old Torah Scroll belonging to the Zeinati family of Pekiin. They are reputed to be the only Jewish family never to have left Eretz Yisrael. This rare treasure can be seen in Israel Journey (1950s).
During the 1950s and 1990s Jewish television stations broadcasting to audiences outside Israel, primarily in North America, became increasingly popular. These magazines attempted to bring issues of Jewish interest and concern and events in Israel to the viewer in his home. In Jewish Television Magazine no. 33 (1988), presenter Steven Macht brings scenes of Shavuot celebrations in kibbutzim in addition to teaching viewers how to prepare cheese blintzes, one of the foods Ashkenazi Jews traditionally associate with Shavuot.
Finally, in Jerusalem On Line magazine 21/93 May 1993, moderator Michael Greenspan speaks to Rabbi David Hartman about Shavuot and its significance in today’s world. Rabbi Hartman stresses that unlike other festivals, there is no outside enemy that had to be vanquished instead it is a holiday of conviction, of affirming ones Jewish identity. It commemorates the most seminal event in Jewish history, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
from the June 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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