No offense to our fellow landsmen who love to camp and enjoy the outdoors in its rawest form; You are applauded for your sportsmanship and ability to spend time without the modern conveniences we are so spoiled with.
Recently my son’s Hispanic/Catholic partner/fiancé went on a yearly traditional camping trip with his family. After 14 years together, when he asked my son to join his family — while knowing what the answer would be — my wonderful son-in-law (after 14 years together with a wonderful relationship, I do feel he is my son-in-law), he got the stock answer from my son: “You have to remember, that as a Jew, we spent 40 years in the dessert! Dayenu!” (Dayenu in Hebrew means, “It would have been ENOUGH!”)
My son graciously turned down the invitation knowing the thought of camping was enough for him, let alone driving the hundreds of miles to a camp site in the California summer heat, cringing at the thought of endless hikes, viewings of trees and mountains, more mountains and trees, sleeping in bug-infested tents while recoiling about the potty and shower situation. As Tevye implied when he insisted on seeing Motel’s sewing machine on his timeline, “I looked, I saw, it’s like all other sewing machines!” A mountain is a mountain is a mountain.
Over the many years my son still can’t get across to his partner, “Jew’s idea of roughing-it, is calling room service!”
When I think of the Jews wandering through the dessert, I feel the guilt of my personal attachment to my bathroom accessories, my products, comfy bed, heating/air conditioning and kitchen conveniences. I shlep my pillow on all travels!
I was the Girl Scout that got sent home after the second day at Girl Scout sleep-away camp because I failed the badge requirements of pitching a tent and lighting a camp fire while crying for my Mom! My son comes by his dislike of camping with merit. (But I did get a badge for making perfect hospital corners on a bed!)
So why am I thinking about camping/wandering the dessert and the High Holidays in one thought? I wasn’t sure for many minutes until I connected the thoughts to our TRADITIONS and those of my son-in-law’s: Because his traditions are steeped in custom like ours. For instance, the day after Thanksgiving 20 of his family members gather and create an assembly line to make tamales that are frozen and to be eaten on Christmas day. This is a very set-in-stone day that you must attend to share in the cultural customs for this family and a variation of the traditions that Tevya so perfectly shows us!
Without our very cultural habits that we cherish and carry out year after year, Judaism might have just been another world religion. Our sacred traditions and special way-of-life is often more visible, like the specifics of Orthodox dress, how many of us wear a Mezuzah or a Star of David, the Mezuzah on our doors, our Kosher laws. Our traditions define us and may be why some think/thought Jews were a race. We are a visible people and damn proud of it!
So Why Do We?:
-Kiss the Mezuzah on the doorpost:
As your fingers kiss the sacred symbol and you kiss the fingers that touched the Mezuzah, it is an expression of connection with G-d and His protection to the home.
-Have male circumcision:
It is the physical connection of the covenant between G-d and Abraham and the Jewish people. It sets us apart.
G-d made the earth in seven days. The number seven in Judaism represents the power of G-d. Shiva is derived from the Hebrew word Sheva that signifies the seven days of mourning that offers a time for emotional and spiritual healing. A spiritual mitzvah way before psychology was invented!
-Eat hard-boiled eggs:
At a time of grief, hard-boiled eggs signify the cycle of life and death and represent hope. They show our self-determination for resilience, rebirth and renewal.
-Have Bar/Bar Mitzvahs:
Son and Daughter of the Mitzvah (Mitzvah also means connection) is the literal meaning of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. At the appropriate age as a child strives for maturity, his/her connection to Torah and Mitzvot is presented in the sacred ceremony. It confirms his/her Jewish identity and religious education they have achieved and celebrate in a joyous event.
-Break a glass at a wedding ceremony:
Never wanting to forget the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a glass is broken by the groom with his foot. The act also symbolizes how fragile relationships are and that we must treat them with love and care. An old Jewish custom that many are not aware of is the Tenaim ceremony which takes place upon the engagement of a couple. At a festive gathering, the mothers of the couple break a plate to solidify the dowry, financial arrangements, date and time of the chuppah event. (After the Tenaim party for my son and his now fiancé, I took the broken plate pieces and designed a mosaic table top that adorns their home. A lovely memory of that wonderful celebration!)
–Pooh! Pooh! Pooh! Whether it’s good or bad news!:
Jews look at good news and bad news as a moment to ward off the Evil Eye by saying “Pooh! Pooh! Pooh!” and then spitting three times! For centuries this superstitious practice has been a response to something horrible that will ensure such a bad event will never occur again and if it’s a happy occasion, the gesture will keep the Evil Eye away! Go figure such a mixed message!?
-Gifting Bread, Sugar and Salt to someone moving into a new house:
These three items have great meaning and symbolism for the owners of a new home. Bread is given so they should never know hunger, sugar so their lives are sweet and plenty of salt so that’s the only bitterness they should ever know from.
-Not writing out the word G-d:
Many believe it is a sign of respect as the Lord is too holy to spell out.
-Tear a piece of a garment or wear a black ribbon when someone dies:
The tear represents the tears you shed and the tear in your heart after losing someone you love. It is worn during the 7 days of Shiva.
-Say Mazel Tov when we drop a piece of glassware:
One again, we must always be reminded of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem but this funny tradition is almost a reflex action to the breaking of a glass at a wedding! We just yell out, “Mazel Tov!” Some even think it keeps the Evil Eye away and that is the worst thing that can happen to you that day! And if you break something while unpacking in a new home, it’s a sign that you will enjoy happiness and no harm will come to you.
-Always have to play Jewish Geography:
“Where do you live?” and “Where are you from?” is most likely the first thing you ask someone upon meeting them. For Jews, it’s almost a certainty that you will have people in common from various locations because all Jews know each other or someone who knew someone who knew someone else or was related to them! There must be a Yiddish expression for 7 Degrees of Separation! (Hmmmmm, the number 7!)
-Embrace Bubbe Meises:
How could we possibly appreciate and tell a story about our Bubbe if there weren’t Bubbe Meises? They are old wives’ tales, mostly untrue, usually of little importance and definitely related to superstition. These stories could, and often did, describe who our Bubbes were! And most likely, we act them out and tell them with the same gestures and accent so as to keep our traditions from fading while adding nuances so they are remembered with laughter and love. It’s what makes us Jews!
We may be a repetitive people but it’s the continuum of our traditions and culture, the stories we tell over and over again, to the same foods we eat on each holiday along with the chantings, prayers and readings that keeps us connected to our heritage and origins. While doing the same things, even with adding new flare, year in and year out, we distinguish ourselves from others to express that Judaism is exactly how Tevya intended, filled with “TRADITION! TRADITION! TRADITION!”
Most importantly, by repeating our customs every year, we give our children and grandchildren what was given to us: A way of life that exudes the continuous culture and heritage that we must pass on and on. Embracing the High Holidays as a new experience each year can enhance it’s meaning while allowing dedication and respect to our Jewishness, our ancestors and the generations to come. It is our duty to keep our Jewish way-of-life in the present while honoring the past.
In 5784, may you be blessed with safety, good health, love, joy and peace. La Shanah Tova ….Sandy
As a Baby Boomer Bubbe who still feels 18 but has four grand kids to prove this is the 21 Century, Sandra writes to leave a legacy for the next generations. Her belief that these precious kids need to know their cultural and family’s past in order for them to live their future is all the muse she needs!
She has a Master’s Degree in Psychology and Cross Cultural studies, has written a family history, personal memoir and is completing her first novel.
Her grandmother’s journey to America and life is her source for her deep belief and love for Judaism.