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Mira Sucharov


By Mira Sucharov

ne of the most well-loved songs in the contemporary Jewish musical canon is arguably Tradition from Fiddler on the Roof. The song captures a time when boys studied Talmud while girls sewed, and husbands delicately tiptoed around the question of romantic love with their practical homemaker wives. American audiences soaked up the grand pronouncements of the orchestral score, even as they watched a depiction of tradition in peril. Ushering in a process that is still going on, Jews in the sunset of Eastern European shtetl life were struggling to strike a balance between the push of tradition and the pull of modernity.

As we’ve seen old restrictions being blasted open – witness women in the workforce, public discussion of safe sex, and legalizing the right of gay couples to marry, the question of the role of tradition in giving individuals a sense of collective identity is ever-present. At the same time, figuring out where tradition fits is confusing.
Take gender roles. On most counts, my marriage is strikingly modern. My husband, Steve, and I both work full time and share in domestic duties equally (though some of those tasks have been ultimately been divided along traditional gender lines: him filling out paperwork and me filling in our social calendar).

But our early courtship contained two episodes of striking traditionalism.

The first occurred on a balmy summer evening 15 years ago. Like a medieval male suitor, Steve found himself forced to prove his might before his prospective father-in-law considered him suitable for his precious daughter

The setting was a tight family game of Trivial Pursuit. Steve landed on Sports & Leisure. My dad drew a card, silently read the question, and cackled smugly. He looked squarely at Steve. “Who was the first commissioner of baseball?” 

“Kenesaw Mountain Landis,” Steve replied, evenly. My father was stunned into silence. Steve glowed. Two proud baseball fans had shown down, and the future marriage was sealed.

When, a few years later, Steve and I actually became engaged, something motivated him to formally ask my father for my hand in marriage. Maybe they played a secret Trivial Pursuit rematch as I waited on the front lawn; I shall never know.

Why do we fall back on traditional dynamics even when we may be committed to progressive values? In other words, which half of the message are audiences applauding when they hear the song Tradition: the part that celebrates old customs and beliefs, or the part that is documenting their unraveling?

The emotion of nostalgia can help make sense of this dynamic. In naturally seeking to maintain a continuous sense of self, individuals often long for earlier times or places. It is this act of collectively mourning a different time that can help individuals and groups let go of what seems to be a simpler past. Particularly when done with some sense of ironic detachment, this process can help individuals and societies embrace a much more complex present. But it is not an easy task.

Jewish ritual practice, by definition, hinges almost totally on tradition. But as ritual evolves to embrace multiple sets of values, new ritual objects are being created that look to the past with a similarly ironic wit.

Jewish ritual objects have long been married with artistry, befitting the religious injunction of beautifying sacred objects. But Daniel Belasco’s Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life (2009), showcases tzedakah boxes made out of tins of Thai coconut milk replete with a pen and a sticker on which to designate a charity of the user’s choice; Biblical phrases encased in gel capsules that riff on society’s fetish with prescription drugs and the notion of religion as a panacea; and a talit kattan transformed into a woman’s apron. (The volume is available at the Greenberg Families Library.) These artists are drawn to Jewish ritual for more than just sacred reasons; they wish to examine tradition through current lenses.

Of course, a pressing questions when it comes to the recasting of tradition is who is in charge:  religious gatekeepers who select what is considered legitimate; contemporary actors moulding tradition to suit their values, or the disembodied traditions themselves? In Judaism, there’s no clear consensus across the denominations on this question. Still many spiritual communities are realizing the need to meet adherents “where they are.” New synagogues are being built to meet the eco-demands of their congregants, and some religious communities focus on off-site engagement.

How elastic is tradition, so that those who feel the pull of the past can express it in ways that connect with today? Perhaps through practices as varied as eco-kashrut, linking the Passover story to contemporary liberation struggles, or even playing inter-generational board games by moonlight, we can connect the self of then with the self of now – and help keep both intact.

Mira Sucharov is Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University, and is currently writing a book on nostalgia and political change. 

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