Friday, April 10, 2009

Fading traditions

One of the best aspects of celebrating Jewish holidays, in my opinion, is experiencing the traditions in a way that is unique and personal to each family. Everyone finds special meaning in the way they celebrate. Celebrating Passover this year got me thinking about my own family's traditions and I had a sudden realization that they are slowly fading away, dying.

To celebrate this year, I was a guest of Rabbi Hershey and Chana for the JGrads Seder at Chabad. The Chabad experience was great, but it made me slightly nostalgic for the Seder my family always does, or did, for that matter.

In my family, my grandma was the linchpin of our Jewish traditions. We always had holiday meals in her 1950's house, where she always cooked the traditional foods in her tiny kitchen of pastel-colored appliances (the oven and stove were pink--very retro). She was the center of it all, the source of tradition, the glue that held us together.

The Haggadahs we used at Passover were ancient, from the 1950's as well, and the pages filled with matzoh crumbs that are probably older than me. We always made a certain Kosher for Passover chocolate cake that I love, and we rarely finished the Seder after eating dinner.

All these little details fill my childhood memories of growing up Jewish.

Now that she has passed away, my family in Miami no longer holds a Seder, or any other holiday meals. It's not that they couldn't, but without my grandmother it's not the same.

As I slowly forget some of the traditional songs, prayers and customs associated with the holidays, I worry about how these traditions will get carried on into the next generation of my family. My grandma's 2 daughters both married men (my uncle and my father) who are not practicing Jews. Of the 4 grandkids, both of my cousins are married to non-Jews, and my brother will probably do the same.

That leaves me.

I wonder if my family is unique in this way, but I have a feeling others have similar experiences, as inter-marrying is pretty common. The loss of tradition in my family is palpable and saddens me.

Of course, I'm not powerless to do something about it. I can be the one to make sure these traditions live on. But I wonder, are others dealing with this same problem, and what are you doing to keep your Jewish traditions alive?


Y? said...

Wow, great piece. I think that this really resonates with a lot of people.

My grandmother was also the matriarch. We used to have about 30 people at her house every year. There was Hebrew and singing, and family.

When she passed away, it was harder to keep things together.

But traditions change and morph with every generation. And Jewish paranoia leads us to always worry that we will be the last link.

In fact, your post is witness to the value that you believe these traditions hold.

With a bit of planning, we could have our own seder next year, rekindle some fading traditions, and maybe start a few new ones.

Anonymous said...

Traditions are difficult to maintain in any environment as open as ours. In the case of seders, they are frequently memborable occasions and family members are happy to participate but not to carry on the tradition. And when it's something the wider culture doesn't embrace (like Christmas or Easter), that makes it all the more difficult. So if it's important, you seek out a community that supports what you want to do and start making your own traditions. It isn't easy but it beats regreting that the tradition stopped with you.

izzy cohen said...

Hello, M-teen. Your nom-de-web is a cute wordplay on your name.

Your mother's mother and my father were sister-brother. I used to
babysit your mother and her younger sister when they lived next door
to us. My sister Anne sent me the loss of tradition item you posted.

The easiest way to remain part of a wider Jewish community is to live
in Israel. At this moment my wife is in Tiveria (Tiberias), our son
Erez is in Herzlia, our daughter Libby (named after your mother's
cousin Libby) is in Tsafat (Safad) and I'm home in Petah Tikva. Once a
week I work in Jerusalem.

Even in Israel traditions can die with the death of a family member.
At our seders, my wife's mother Georgia z"l used to read the coffee
grounds that remained after drinking Turkish coffee (called BoTZ = mud
in Israeli Hebrew). Everyone reveled in her revelations except, of
course, the one whose cup was being read. I was the lucky one. I don't
drink coffee.

GeoRGia (the country, not the state) was so-named because it is a
narrow throat (Hebrew GaRGeret) of land between the Caspian and Black
seas. This throat was part of a male body-part map that stretched from
its white head (Hebrew RoSH) in Bela-rus (white Russia) to its right
(Hebrew Y'MiN) foot in Yemen.

Your mother's mother's father immigrated to the States from
Baranovichi, Belarus in 1905. When Haley's comet arrived in 1910, he
was herding cattle in Texas. Later that year his wife and son (my
father) arrived in the States. They settled in Savannah, Georgia where
your mother's mother was born.

If you are interested in body-part maps, Google < anthropomorphic maps
"izzy cohen" >. I discovered the Phoenician maps of Hermes in west
Asia and Aphrodite in north Africa. These maps are relevant to the
Exodus story. So I started a tradition of describing these maps at our

The Aphrodite map stretched from her cranium (reversed at Morocco) to
her left (Hebrew S'MoL) leg at Somalia.

The Egyptian word for Egypt is KMT. It is cognate with Hebrew KBD or
KaVeD, Aphrodite's liver.

Giving the shin its ancient T-sound, Goshen sounded like Hebrew KiTiN
which means bean, her bean-shaped kidney. That's why Ashkenazim do not
eat beans (KiTNiot) on Pesach. Cotton (Arabic KuTN) was exported from
Goshen. The Latin genus for cotton is Gossypium. Compare English
gossamer = cotton-like.

Egypt is the Greek name for that area. It is based on hepato- as in
hepatitis, a liver disease. Compare aedes aegyptii, the mosquito that
causes that disease.

The bodies of Hermes and Aphrodite are connected, literally, at Sinai
but describing that may be too risque for this blog.

Best regards,
Your cousin Israel