Miss Kitka scans the living room. She lifts her head and dampens the edges of the coach with her nose. She hesitates. There are so many hands at her eye level! Caught in a sort of trance, the entirety of her vision is overwhelmed with fingers folding, unfolding, aligning, re-folding, flattening, and finally cutting various hues of origami paper. Thankfully, my cat is more curious about the people than in tasting the paper scraps falling to the floor.
Unlike for Miss Kitka, this is not my first Shavuot. I am familiar with the sounds of snipping, crinkling--oohs and ahs. Familiar with the speech I give as the last guests arrive, instructing them in the method of making the roisele. Roisele, “little roses” in Yiddish, are papers folded into six segments, made circular, gouged and clipped into arabesques and petals, and finished with a six-pointed star at the center.
The process has deep historical roots. Shavuot commemorates the reception of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, and is one of three central harvest festivals (the others being Passover and Sukkhot). In ancient Israel, the Temple was decorated with flowers. When the Temple was destroyed many synagogues continued the practice. It evolved in different ways depending on region and local culture. In Eastern Europe, the traditional Jewish craft of papercutting infused with the floral motif of Shavuot, and thus the paper roisele.
For me, there is also a personal history to roisele. Each year, for one night, the dining room table was covered in origami paper and scissors. Each year I would get a little better at folding. Each year I would hold the scissors more steadily, cut more intricately, and eventually teach others. In a way they became a method of tracking how I changed--how I had learned. One year, mine would be as good as my sister’s. In a few years after that, on par with my father’s. Eventually I did not need to compare mine to anyone else. I could walk on my own. A sort of height chart for an annoyingly artistic family.
This year in St. Paul, I hosted a Shavuot get together and shared the roisele ritual with my guests. And boy, wow, the results were all over the place. People had styles I had never seen before; some were pros right off the bat; some had incredible difficulty even folding; others made the process their own. I was dumbfounded: skill in making roisele has nothing to do with age! What has taken me 23 years to accomplish had taken others 2 minutes. My progress narrative was exploded when I brought in other people besides myself or my family.
It makes a sort of sense to locate the process of making roisele in a personal, chronological history: Shavuot is a holiday about finding meaning in temporal phenomena. The festival occurs fifty days after the second (or first in Israel) night of Passover. Traditionally, you count and say a blessing each for every day between the holidays, a period of time called the Omer. For some Jews, the Omer is a solemn time when when one is forbidden to marry, cut hair, shave, throw parties or throw dances.
A time of reflection and solemnity, the period of the Omer bears some similarities to Lent, though each occurs at a different time of the year. However, a more chronologically matched parallel to the Omer is marked in the Christian calendar through the celebration of Pentecost (meaning fiftieth, as in the fifty days it takes from Easter to get to Pentecost, just like the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot. Pentecost traditions vary from denomination to denomination and region to region, but like Shavuot it is a holiday commemorating the founding of a religion. It is a celebration of spiritual awakening. It signals the transition into spring/summer. In many congregations, it even incorporates flowers. And both holidays make note of temporal phenomenon, giving new meaning to a particular period of time.
In her book Time Binds, Professor of English at UC Davis, Elizabeth Freeman charts a process of identity as contingent on the experience of time: “By ‘time binds,” [...]I mean that naked flesh is bound into socially meaningful embodiment through temporal regulation[...]. And I mean that people are bound to one another, engrouped, made to feel coherently collective, through particular orchestrations of time” (Freeman 3).
While Freeman’s book focuses on the relationship between the use of temporal regulation to discipline certain bodies/identities, particularly those of genders and sexualities, she is also charting the broader process of time as it relates to who we are, as well as how reorganizations of normative time can and do shift who we are. Who we are in fact is equally a matter of when we are. Which brings me to the point of holy-time tracking. Of Lent. Of the Omer. Of the days between Easter and Pentecost.
For a Jew counting the Omer, this is a third calendar: the Omer on top of the Hebrew Calendar on top of the Gregorian Calendar. Putting certain emphasis on one calendar over the other, likewise shifts my priorities as an individual and as a community member. I am alternately and simultaneously an a American in the fiscal year, a Jew, a and aew who takes note of the Omer when many American Jews don’t necessarily. Lent likewise uses a period of time to change the self, a period of time outside beyond the chronological progression of maturation. The meaning of Lent each year changes, depending on when it is, depending on what book your church is reading, or what you are giving up, or if you are observing it, or if you take up a new practice or revisit an old one. Lent is an interruption--days of mindful counting are an interruption.
This year the holy month of Ramadan overlaps with Shavuot and Pentecost. Fasting, as an important aspect of Ramadan, likewise indicates a change of the self, a physical change that indicates a spiritual transformation. Furthermore, the experience, like Lent, is not static year to year. As Ramadan is part of a lunar calendar and not the Gregorian calendar, and it occurs in vastly different seasons. The period of fasting in a given day is incredibly varying, and by extension embodied response to the fasting cannot be the same each year, a self contingent on rhythms of time outside any individual’s control.
The week of the 5/29-6/4 has seen the overlap of holy days that are tied to periods of counting. Of conscious time keeping. Of months and weeks of particular meaning. Like the interruption of Miss Kitka’s daily routine of sniffing the coaching, holidays interrupt the secular, imbue the day-to-day with something unusual. A closeness to the sacred. A chance to reimagine the self in a cyclical history. A time to chart meaning outside of the usual calendar. An awareness of how our lives are orchestrated by the movement of celestial bodies, historical creeds and ritualized action.
These days of counting ask us not only to set aside a day for a particular activity like other holidays but rather forefront the importance of the day, the week, the hour, the year. With temporal interruption comes gnosis, a recognition of the when that leads to the who. In the process of counting days, we are asked, at these times, what is time? How does one time relate to another? How do we find meaning in time? And in asking questions of time, we encounter a core religious conversation on the meaning of the self.
Work Cited: Freeman, Elizabeth. Time binds: Queer temporalities, queer histories. North Carolina: Duke U Press, 2011. Print.