TRANSMITTING THE CULTURE
In the course of our conversations, I came to realize that the words ‘valise’ and ‘dungarees’ are nearing obsolescence; that Robert Young, the star of Father Knows Best, seems to have no place in the pantheon of enduring television stars; that while the standards of the ‘American Songbook’ have been transmitted successfully from my parents’ to my to my kids’ generation, the names of their composers and lyricists (including, prominently, several Jews) are falling by the wayside.
All of which got me to wondering how many of ‘our crowd’ of progressive, mostly secular Jews have much idea of which aspects of Jewish culture they want to transmit, let alone how or why.
In the January-February issue of JEWISH CURRENTS, which is now in production, I write in my “Religion and Skepticism” column about how that community, like any contemporary Jewish community, “depends for its future existence on turning born Jews into bred Jews — Jews who actually do derive some part of their liberalism, generosity, multiculturalism and non-conformism from Jewish sources and Jewish philosophy as well as from the historical reality of Jewish oppression.” But why bother cultivating that consciousness — apart from helping me preserve my job as a professional Jew? Because, my column claims, “there is a fundamental collective sensibility in the Jewish tradition that is very much worth preserving . . . [and] a soulful commitment to social justice that makes the Jewish people a force to contend with. Because idolatry, the worship of false gods, is antithetical to Jewish consciousness. Because the international quality of Jewish life has always been a healthy counterpoint to rabid nationalism (Zionism notwith-standing). Because Judaism purports to civilize people, most specifically me,n by dissuading us from indulging our lusts. Because Jews, as Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, ‘can’t sleep themselves and let nobody else sleep.’ Because Jewish culture is deeply ironic and humorous. Because we are the children, as Chaim Weizmann once said, of old-clothes dealers, and the grandchildren of prophets.”
Nu, how much of these cultural insights have I actually transmitted, in Jewish packaging, to my own 19-year-olds (twins)?
My kids have actually gone separate ways on the Jewish question — my daughter Zoë opening many doors through involvement with Israel (Young Judaea), synagogue (Reconstructionism), Jewish studies courses and Hebrew language literacy, while my son Jonah still basically relies on family culture for his Jewish connections. Many elements of that Jewish family culture, moreover, were reinvented by their mother and me, rather than received through transmission from our parents — which makes the transmission ‘signal’ relatively weak.
Still, I feel satisfied. Here’s the basic list of our family ‘practice’ —
My son and I spend time having adventures and meaningful conversations on Rosh Hashone while ‘the girls’ spend time in synagogue. He and I have done this together for about a decade, and have come to rely on Rosh Hashone as a time of renewal for our relationship. The four of us also always go apple-picking during the Jewish new year, which makes this the only time of the year when I eat apples; right off the tree is the only way to go. And we all do a family tashlikh (‘casting sins on the water’), which we invented entirely by ourselves. I’m attaching an explanatory illustration. For my family, tashlikh is a peak Jewish experience.
On Yom Kippur, we all fast— a tradition received from my wife’s mother (hell, my Communist parents used to send me to school on YK in the 1950s — where, in my Jewish neighborhood, we’d have three kids in class and an Irish Catholic substitute teacher).
We’ve done sukkes a few times, but it’s not achieved the status of a family tradition.
For Hanukkah/khanike, we light candles, give gifts, play dreydl, have parties with friends, eat latkes (my specialty), and do the bulk of our annual charitable giving by assigning a political theme to each night of the festival and selecting organizations with missions that fulfill the theme. So my kids and we have learned about tsedoke by linking it to the fun of khanike.
Nothing much else happens for us, in terms of the Jewish calendar, until Passover/peysekh. (We tend to ignore Purim, having already gotten our jollies on Halloween.) Peysakh is the one Jewish holiday that we inherited from our own parents; my wife’s mother is still the baleboste who, at 88, prepares seder for 25-30 people. We use home-grown hagadas that emphasize participation; oftentimes, we tell all participants, in advance, to bring in materials (songs, stories, objects, etc.) pertaining to various Passover themes and simply use the hagada as a kind of program to the festivities. Peysakh is the most full-bodied and community-imbedded Jewish event in the year for all of us.
Finally, we have an on-again, off-again relationship to shabes that, at its most “on,” consists simply of a family meal with candle-lighting, blessings over wine and khale, enumeration of some good things that happened to us in our week, and a reluctance to turn on our computers on Saturday.
As a backdrop to all of this, of course, I am constantly writing about Jewish themes, making artworks on Jewish themes, talking about Jewish issues, recommending articles and books to my kids, especially my daughter, on Jewish subjects, and so on. Apart from the scattered observances of major events in the Jewish religious calendar, however, I feel that we have actually transmitted little, in a Jewish context, of what I enumerate in paragraph four above (about collectivity, idolatry, internationalism, etc.). At 19, they are just at the threshold of their adult intellectual lives and I expect that there’ll be more shared Jewish readings, films, and concepts in the years ahead. Still, I have to wonder about the future of secular Jewish culture when I realize that the family culture I’ve enumerated above is actually pretty MAXIMALIST for secular Jews — and that the transmission of Jewish values and philosophy, without an embrace of the Jewish religious calendar, is a hard row to hoe.
Nu? How do readers of this blog, especially non-religious readers, deal with this issue of Jewish cultural transmission, currently or in their family planning?
EDITOR, JEWISH CURRENTS