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When I was in college, pulling an all-nighter was a real thrill. Burning the midnight oil, I thought, was an exercise in devotion, a testament to the fires of my imagination. I now know better. I’d much rather be sleeping at 3 in the morning than shaping and reshaping my sentences, drowning my frustrations in mug after mug of black tea.

Mt. Sinai/Providence Lith. Co.
Mt. Sinai/Providence Lith. Co.

There’s one night of the year, though, when I still relish the prospect of staying up until the wee hours of the morn and tumbling, bleary-eyed, into bed when everyone else is heading to work, and that’s Erev Shavuoth, or, as it’s increasingly known, Tikkun Leil Shavuoth.

An age-old custom that has taken hold of the contemporary Jewish imagination, the Tikkun has arguably become one of the fastest-growing and most popular moments on the Jewish calendar. Even the most optimistic of observers would never, ever have predicted that the practice of staying up all night to study Torah would flourish in modern-day America -- and flourish among all segments of the Jewish population, not just among its most traditional and observant members.

Dressed in suits or in t-shirts, sporting yarmulkes or some other form of headgear, people gather together in droves. Some show up just for the cheesecake, others for the company and still others for the madcap fun of it all. Many of the attendees are drawn by the programming which tends to be as diverse and varied as they are. At the 14th Street Y Into the Night, you can study gemara, familiarize yourself with the meaning of shmita, stretch your limbs and listen to Bach. Further uptown, at the JCC of Manhattan Shavuot, offerings range from Israeli dance and cooking classes to an intensive encounter with Megillat Ruth.

However you explain it -- as an exercise in pluralism, an expression of postdenominationalism, a version of DIY Judaism, a form of neo-Hasidism, an instance of Jewish renewal -- by whatever name, the joint is jumping come 10 p.m. on Erev Shavouth and remains in motion until sunrise.

Be there. It’s probably as close as any of us will ever get to Mount Sinai.

The Jewish holiday of Shavuoth, which just took place, is associated with many things: Harvest fruits or bikkurim; Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah and, on a more quotidian note, the eating of cheese cake and other dairy comestibles. These associations keep the age-old yontef in circulation. But now and again, modern-day life intrudes, adding a grace note to the proceedings.

Cheese cake
Cheese cake. Flickr/Alper Çuğun

Like many of my coreligionists, I had planned on eating a slice or two of cheese cake in the course of the holiday. In search of New York’s finest version, I made a beeline for William Greenberg Jr. Desserts on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a bakery known far and wide for its pastries. By the time I had arrived on the scene, on the Tuesday afternoon preceding the start of the holiday, none was to be had. “We’re all sold out,” glumly explained the woman behind the counter, one of a handful of longstanding employees who hailed originally from the Philippines. She then added that she was caught off-guard by the pent-up demand for a product which usually doesn’t sell out. “What’s going on?”

I volunteered that a holiday was in the offing. “What kind of holiday?” she asked. “Shavuoth,” I replied. “Spell it,” she commanded. Which I dutifully did, not that it clarified anything. On the contrary. Even more puzzled than before -- what kind of American holiday was Shavuoth? -- but undaunted, the Greenberg Desserts employee then turned to one of her co-workers and told her to order more cheese cakes for the morrow. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that by then, it would probably be too late: Those customers who were apt to mark the holiday with a cheese cake were not too likely to be purchasing one on Shavuoth itself. I hope that wiser heads prevailed. Otherwise, William Greenberg Jr. Desserts was going to have a surfeit of cheese cakes on its shelves -- and it would be all my fault.

The other sweet little holiday-related moment I experienced this year took place not in a bakery but at shul, where, at the conclusion of the service, the congregation’s children placed fruits and flowers at the foot of the Ark. One of their number, a boy of about 7 or 8, had made a poster in honor of the occasion, the details of which he was rather keen on sharing publicly. Drawing himself up tall, he proceeded to explain in the preternaturally mature manner of a smart Upper West Side kid that his artwork contained “approximately” 10 petals, which symbolized the “approximately” Ten Commandments. The congregation, fittingly enough, erupted in laughter.

These two incidents are not going to supplant Mount Sinai in our collective imagination, of that I’m sure. All the same, they put me in mind of the ways in which the unanticipated encounter sustains tradition. You never know what’s going to happen.

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