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


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that one issue is this: what kinds of vehicles have we created that can be transmitted to a next generation. Religious Judaism (across the spectrum) is based upon the notion that philosophies and ideas can be effectively transmitted only when they are connected to concretes (for religious Jews, this means rituals, calendar, objects, shared language ...). I have long suspected that this question of the need for concretes is one that needs to be considered when thinking about cultural transmission for secular Jews. Hashomer Hatzair is a secular movement that attempts to do this in their youth movement to, I believe, mixed, but reasonable success. The contents are only loosely connected to a pre-Zionist Jewish past, but the loyalty of participants to something Jewish (not always so clearly defined) seems to last.

4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No place for Robert Young in the enduring television pantheon? What kind of narishkayt is that? They may not know his name, but today's kids certainly know the character - the lovable breadwinner who endures all sorts of nonsense from his wife and kids. In our family, we refer to this character as the Dopey Sitcom Dad... originated by Robert Young, tweaked and fine tuned by Hugh Beaumont, Carl Betz, Dick Van Dyke, Desi Arnaz, and of course Jackie Gleason... the Dopey Sitcom Dad has been a mainstay in most family-themed situation comedies through the years (Ed O'Neill as Al Bundy on Married With Children was always a favorite of mine).
Today's kids probably know this character best as Peter, the dad in Family Guy... but all of those Dopey Sitcom Dads owe a great deal to Robert Young, and if you're concerned about transmitting culture to the next generation, well, you could do worse than to watch some old Father Knows Best episodes!
Although, if it's Jewish culture we're concerned with, I supposed it should be Molly Berg and some old episodes of The Goldbergs... I found a couple of episodes on VHS (on eBay, of course) and all the generations of my family enjoyed watching them. The show is funny, it's sweet, and the dad isn't even all that dopey. As one of my kids said at the time, You mean there really was a Jewish sitcom way back then? Yes, there was... and while it wasn't centered on Jewish jokes, there was certainly a Jewish sensibility about that show.
So while it's certainly not the only way, or the main way, that I would consider transmitting Jewish culture to the next generation, I do think there's value in exposing them to Jewish movies, music, literature, and yes, even television.

7:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did ok in the cultural transmission department...so my kids go to a seder every year and eat latkes at Chanukah, big deal.
It really hurts me that they have no feeling for services and prayers and beliefs.I'm frightened that their children will know and feel even less. What will happen to the golden chain, what will connect the past, present, and future of Judaism? Our links are weak and I fear for us. Please someone tell me, if we endured as a people for all these centuries, what can we do to make sure we'll be around for many more?

8:43 PM  
Blogger Gary said...


Your concerns raise very thoughtful questions about passing on values and ideals to our children. They say that the apple does not fall from the tree…. So we can take some consolation in knowing that our kids will be a lot like us…and if we have set a good example then we can rest a little easier…. However, if the apple wishes to become the tree it must grow roots of its own and be tied to the earth. It will need to become more than an apple. It will need to sacrifice itself in order for the tree to emerge. And then it will need to connect with something permanent in witch to grow roots…

Culture is like the flower of the tree. It’s what emerges when the tree is mature? It cannot be cut from the stem and put in the ground. It will simply wilt and die.

What I am saying (besides discussing horticulture) is that with out direct contact to Jewish scripture, prayer and fasting…the best we can hope for is the power of our own imprint on them…which will fade quickly when they leave the home environment.

Conversely, if we expose young people to the sources of inspiration, spirituality and Holy verse that inspired us and help them develop a deep consideration of the mysterious meaning of life…we will find that they will continue to refine this culture that we wish to perpetuate, even though it must needs change with each generation.

As a Baha’I, I too wish for my children to help grow the community and involve themselves with the important issues of the day…but just as a student needs a teacher, we too need contact with something greater than ourselves.

It is evident to me that the innate spiritual potentialities latent in us come out through contact with the Divine. The candle can hold the flame but not originate one.

So, we too are in need of our flame. .. That comes from turning towards the Creator. Towards a higher power and seeking assistance. Can a secular movement continue to produce this spark? I feel that after only one or two generations removed from the initial flame, the embers will grow cold and cease to produce any light or culture that we would recognize as beneficial to future generations.

Or to say it in Biblical terms…we might quench the flame from the” Burning Bush” by placing ourselves before God. Imaging us to be the originators and making ourselves partners with Him.

Those are my humble thoughts.

Gary Bulkin

6:11 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home