This Shavuot, a Guide for Pairing Art with Dairy

The Jewish holiday Shavuot (Hebrew for “Weeks”) begins tonight at sundown and lasts through Thursday, June 1. In Judaism, Shavuot is the holiday that takes place after a time period called the Omer, or exactly seven weeks after the first Passover Seder. As a child, I was introduced to this holiday as “the day everything on the Lower East Side was closed.”

Like the other Jewish pilgrimage festivals (Passover and Sukkot), Shavuot carries both agricultural and historical significance. First, the holiday celebrates the day the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Shavuot also heavily features the beginning of the harvest. Each year, the Book of Ruth is read, a story that commemorates the barley and wheat harvest, along with the concept of conversion.

Shavuot is also celebrated by eating lots of dairy. Some say it is because the Jewish people were commanded not to eat meat and dairy together, and they had no kosher meat. Others say it is because Israel is the land of “milk and honey.” Either way, the upshot is that Jews get to eat a lot of cheesecake once a year.

In the holiday spirit of blending themes and traditions, this article pairs works of art in the Jewish Museum collection with cheeses as well as dairy recipes, celebrating the richness of Jewish culture and religion through art and food.

Cheese Pairing: Marriage Contract for Shavuot with Asiago Cheese (both from Italy)

Marriage Contract for Shavuot, Italy, 17th-18th century. Ink and paint on parchment

This marriage contract, called a ketubah, was made in Italy between the 17th and 18th centuries. During the Jewish wedding ceremony, the groom gives the bride a marriage contract, with a handwritten or printed text, which has been signed by witnesses and is frequently decorated. This wedding in particular takes place on Shavuot.

I initially only chose Asiago as a cheese pairing for this ketubah because they are both Italian. Further research revealed that there is a consortium that oversees the naming of Asiago cheeses, ensuring they are all from an alpine region in Italy (also called Asiago). This feels appropriate for a holiday that revolves around Jewish people hanging out at a mountain, waiting to have their whole world changed.

Asiago is a mild, versatile cheese that can be aged to a crumbly texture, eaten alone fresh, or with some bread or crackers.

Cheese Pairing: Moritz Daniel Oppenheim with Brie

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Shavuot (Pentecost), 1880

This painting from 1880 by artist Mortiz Daniel Oppenheim depicts a rabbi and synagogue goers holding the Torah and praying. Oppenheim, a well-known German painter, often depicted scenes of Jewish life and identity.

Pair this painting with a nice German brie. Brie is one of my favorite cheeses, reserved for special occasions such as a holiday centered around dairy. Brie is enormously unhealthy, but if you’ve ever eaten a baked brie wrapped in phyllo dough, it truly does not matter. Brie’s buttery, mellow taste goes with anything, from salty crackers to tangy fruits and nuts.

Mix and match your Brie flavor pairings as Oppenheim has mixed and matched the Jewish community he depicts in Shavuot (Pentecost), showing a range of behaviors and characters all receiving the Torah.

Recipe Pairing: Harry Lieberman with Blintzes

Harry Lieberman, Shavuot — The Harvest, c. 1934

In this first recipe, we’re making blintzes to pair with Harry Lieberman’s Shavuot, The Harvest. I love this painting — the colors and primitive style immediately bring to mind a bountiful harvest and years of tradition. Lieberman was born in Poland and later immigrated to the United States. He painted this work when he was 91 years old.

Blintzes also originate in Eastern Europe, some specifically in Poland. Blintzes are a very thin pancake (think crepes) wrapped around a sweet cheese filling. While immigration and time have shifted the strictest definition and style of a blintz, their basic heart and delicious nature remain unchanged. To double up on thematic relevance, I am including a mixed berry compote as topping to commemorate the first fruits of the harvest.

(Makes about a dozen blintzes)
Crepe Dough:
4 eggs
1 cup flour
1 cup milk
¼ cup cold water
2 tbsp melted butter
2 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt

1 1/2 cup ricotta
1 egg yolk
½ cup sugar
½ squeezed lemon
½ tsp cinnamon

2–3 cups blueberries and rasberries
1–2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 squeezed orange

1) Blend all dough ingredients together. Refrigerate for an hour at least.
2) Get your crepe maker or frying pan, turn heat to medium.
3) Pour a quarter cup of batter into the frying pan, swirl around to coat pan.
4) Once edges have browned, use spatula to gently lift to and flip.
5) Cook for another two minutes before turning out onto a plate or platter.
6) Mix filling ingredients together all at once.
7) Put ¼ cup filling on the edge of an individual blintz. Roll blintz over once, fold in sides, and finish rolling up.
8) Turn heating to medium again, fry assembled blintzes for 5–10 minutes. 
9) Pour compote over crepes and enjoy!

Recipe Pairing: Tobi Kahn with Haloumi and Vegetable Skewers

Tobi Kahn, Saphyr, 2012

American artist Tobi Kahn created this puzzle calendar sculpture to count down the days of the omer, the time between Passover and Shavuot. In honor of the emphasis on counting the omer, I am pairing this incredible piece with a recipe that blends a number of vegetables with cheese: haloumi cheese and vegetable kabobs. Kabobs must be put together in the way of a puzzle to fit and become something more delicious than the sum of their parts.

Halloumi is a goat and sheep’s milk cheese that browns and softens on the grill without melting.


(Makes 9–10 skewers)
2 bell peppers
2–3 cups mushrooms
1 medium eggplant
2 medium onions
1–2 cups halloumi cheese (rennet-free)
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

1) Slice vegetables into several inch chunks.
2) Slice halloumi into several inch chunks.
3) Mix together marinade in a bowl, place vegetables in and let sit for 5–10 minutes.
4) Get out your skewers, and (I recommend wearing gloves for this), create a rotation of vegetable and cheese to create a pattern. For example- roasted pepper, mushroom, cheese, eggplant, onion, over and over and over again until it is done.
5) Grill at medium temperature for 10–15 minutes directly on the grill or on a grill pan.

Dessert Recipe Pairing: The Book of Ruth with Kunafe

Shalom of Safed, Scenes from the Book of Ruth, 1955–60

This wonderful depiction of Scenes from the Book of Ruth is by Shalom of Safed, an Israeli artist. He shows scenes of the story’s dramatic plot with an emphasis in the last panel placed on the barley and grain harvest.

I paired this painting with Kunafe, a Middle Eastern dessert made here out of shredded phyllo dough, cheese, and simple syrup. This recipe is also flavored with lemon and pistachios. This sweet dessert, made of wheat and dairy, fits perfectly with Scenes from the Book of Ruth and the holiday’s background, and merges religion and cultural tradition.


(makes about an 8x8 pan of kunafe)
2 tbsp melted (cooled) butter
1 sheet frozen phyllo pastry dough
1 cup low fat ricotta cheese
¼ cup sugar
squeezed ½ lemon
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup chopped pistachios
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

1) If phyllo dough is not pre-shredded, shred dough in food processor or by hand.
2) Mix with melted butter, add lemon juice. Divide the mixture into halves.
3) Press half the mixture into baking dish, cover with parchment paper, and refrigerate for at least an hour.
4) Mix together filling ingredients and spread evenly across phyllo dough base after done refrigerating.
5) Cover in the second half of the phyllo mixture and sprinkle with pistachios.
6) Bake for about 35 minutes.
7) While your kunafe bakes, make simple syrup by stirring together sugar and water on medium heat for about five minutes until the sugar is fully dissolved and the mixture has been reduced. Take off heat.
8) Once kunafe is out of the oven, drizzle over cooled simple syrup. Enjoy!

Dessert Recipe Pairing: Venus Pareve with Pareve Chocolate Cookies

Hannah Wilke, Venus Pareve, 1982–84

Contemporary artist Hannah Wilke mixed food and art to make statements on the body, feminism, and Jewish identity. Her sculpture series Venus Pareve featured self-portraits of her form originally made out of chocolate.

In honor of the Book of Ruth, its feminist narrative, and the winning combination of art and food, here is pareve chocolate recipe to celebrate and honor Wilke’s work. Although there is no dairy here, it connects and adapts to a modern day Jewish artist and interpretation of culture.

Triple Chocolate Cookies (adapted from “Dorie’s Cookies”)

(for 2 dozen cookies)
6.5 oz. extra bittersweet chocolate (70%)
1 1/2 oz germans sweet chocolate
1 ½ oz unsweetened chocolate
1 cup pecans (optional)
1/6 cup flour
2 ½ tbsp cocoa powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
3 tbsp coconut oil
1 large egg
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extra

1) Chop all the chocolate. It will take a little while, but it’s better to get it out of the way.
2) Melt chocolate in a double boiler or in a bowl above a pan with boiling water, stir in coconut oil after taking off heat to make sure it does not burn, especially there is no butter acting as a buffer.
3) Mix together dry ingredients.
4) Whip eggs and sugar together in stand mixer on medium for about 5 minutes.
5) Add eggs, whip an additional 3 minutes, then add vanilla and mix until incorporated.
6) Pour in melted chocolate and dry ingredients, let stand mixer run on low until fully mixed.
7) Fold in rest of chopped chocolate and (optional) pecans.
8) Bake 10–12 minutes.

In observance of Shavuot, the Jewish Museum galleries, shops, and Russ & Daughters Restaurant and Appetizing Counter will be closed on Wednesday, May 31 and Thursday, June 1. Explore more works related to Shavuot in the Jewish Museum collection online.

Enjoy and Chag Sameach!

— Lisa Yelsey, Guest Contributor