My kids came home for Thanksgiving and returned to their colleges three days later, leaving me with many thoughts about the transmission of 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?

Lawrence Bush


Branch 1907 of The Workmen’s Circle — the Jewish Currents branch, named to mark the year of birth of our long-time editor, Morris U. Schappes — now has 70 members. We'll be gathering on Friday, December 8th at 7 PM at The Workmen’s Circle for an evening of poetry, music, storytelling, coffee & cake, and getting acquainted. Folks who are not members but are interested in attending should contact me at lawrencebush@earthlink.net.

Branch 1907 is a nationwide branch, so much of our community-building has to happen through the mail. Below find some comments that I made in advance of Rosh Hashone/Yom Kippur: a secular Jewish perspective on the messianic concept in Judaism.

Happy new year to you and all the members of Branch 1907! If you’ll tolerate my being “rabbinical,” I’d like to share a few of the Jewish tradition’s most politically provocative traditions about Rosh Hashone. Think of it as “Rosh Hashone for Jewish Secularists” — yet I begin with the theology of Rosh Hashone, which has three central concepts:

• Malkhuyot — the kingship or sovereignty of God. As a secular Jew, I interpret this principle to be a reminder that no human king or mogul deserves power over life and death; and that wealth is, after all, a collective enterprise of the generations of humanity, using resources that none of us own (air, water, minerals, etc.) and based on centuries of knowledge and culture.

• Zikhronot — remembrance. I interpret this as an affirmation of Jewish peoplehood. Jews who are strangers to one other nevertheless share a long collective memory that creates a bond. It’s not the only bond I have, and it’s not a bond that always brings pleasure, but it’s a bond, like family bonds, that I find important to affirm. I also think of zikhronot as a more universalist concept: to remember those who are poor, who are drowning, who are sick, who are in need, who need my intervention . . .

• Shofarot — the blowing of the shofar, which is the Jewish symbol of mercy and redemption. It comes, you’ll remember, from the ram that Abraham finds caught in the thickets when he is about to make a human sacrifice of his son, Isaac. This biblical scene (“The Akedah”) is read in synagogue at Rosh Hashone, and in Jewish legend, the shofar becomes the way that human beings remind God to be merciful as well as just. It is a lesson that we need desperately to exercise in our own lives and in our political institutions.

From the fulfilment of these three concepts emerges . . . redemption! The Workmen’s Circle likes to call a sheynere un besere velt (a better and more beautiful world). Yet the Jewish tradition is also quite skeptical about redemption — as we all might be when we remember the history of our revolutions and our messianic movements.

The rabbis of the Talmud, whose own immediate ancestors lived under Roman rule and almost obliterated themselves in two uprisings against Roman rule (70 CE and 135 CE), were forced by hard experience to become skeptical of messianic schemes. When the great Rabbi Akiva declared the revolutionary hero Bar Kokhba to be the messiah, Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta responded, “Akiva, grass will be growing out of your cheeks and David’s son the Messiah will still not have come!” Elsewhere in the Talmud, Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani declares: “Blasted be the bones of those who presume to calculate the time of redemption!” And Rav, more positively, suggests that “All the calculated dates of redemption have passed, and now the matter depends on repentance and good deeds.”

Still, they could not restrain themselves from imagining what life would be like “When Moshiakh Comes.” The most prevalent vision, given the conditions of near-obliteration and exile in which the Talmud was created, was of an end to foreign subjugation and the “ingathering of the exiles.” There were also dreams of prosperity: “a stalk of wheat will rise as high as a palm tree . . . a grain of wheat will be as large as the two kidneys of a big bull . . . a single grape will sit in the corner of a house and be used as if it were a large cask of wine . . . containing [no] less than thirty kegs . . . all the wild trees in the Land of Israel will bear edible fruit. . .” A party!

And who is Moshiakh? It’s fascinating that the Jewish tradition determines that Moshiakh will be a descendant of Ruth, the non-Jewish woman who joined herself to the Jewish people out of love for her mother-in-law. There is a universalist sentiment in this that runs hard against what we usually think of as the tribalism of Judaism.

And where is Moshiakh? Moshiakh, the Talmud says, is “sitting among the poor who are stricken with leprosy” at the gates of the city of Rome, and Moshiakh is ‘wrapping their bandages one by one.”

And when is Moshiakh coming? Here the Yiddish folk tradition takes over for me with a story about Jews who hear that Moshiakh is coming to Chelm that very morning. “Don’t worry!” says one of the Chelmites. “We overcame the Pharaoh, we overcame Haman — we will overcome Moshiakh, too!


Editorial Art

A few years ago, I attended the funeral of Rabbi Devora Bartnoff — who was probably one of the first female rabbis in history to die, given that women were not admitted to the rabbinate before 1972. Devora was a remarkable woman and a friend, and en route to the service the following thought entered my mind: Everyone will die . . . but EVERYONE will never die.

I created a circular mandala with those words, EVERYONE WILL DIE EVERYONE WILL NEVER DIE. Now I've reproduced it in Yiddish, which lends the piece an historical dimension that goes way beyond any individual's passing. Still, the piece is entitled, "Devora's Funeral."

Lawrence Bush
Editor, Jewish Currents