Wednesday, August 8, 2012

My 10 heritages

When my parents talk about the importance of judaism, they talk about it as my heritage, the traditions that have been passed down across the generations. They talk of an unbroken chain of family traditions going back thousands of years (Even if the origins may be a little bit fuzzy).  They talk about me "breaking the chain" of my heritage if I don't follow these same traditions, and pass them on to my children the way they were passed on to me.

I recently was discussing with an ex-chabad-bt (the blogger Fence Sitter) the difference between the approach she had to her religious beliefs when she was religious and the approach I had to mine. She couldn't believe I would not keep things that I knew to be "halacha" and think that was ok.  If you believed in God, how could you not follow all the halachot? It makes sense from a rational perspective of course. But that's not how I was taught to follow religion. What I was taught was that judaism was an unbroken mesorah (tradition) going back to mount sinai. I was taught that different rabbis had different ways of interpreting the torah, and that what you were supposed to follow are the specific traditions your family followed. That's how it was in the community I grew up in. People had a range of modern orthodox practices, everyone from people who didn't cover their hair, wore pants, ate non kosher vegetarian outside the house, to people like my mom who covered her hair (but not to a specific tradition, just with whatever hat or scarf she felt like), kept strict kosher inside and outside the house, never wore pants, etc.

What I was taught was that each family has their own traditions, and you're supposed to follow the traditions of our parents- that we were following traditions that OUR SPECIFIC FAMILY had followed for thousands of years.  Like the way some people wait an hour between meat and milk, some people wait 3, some people wait 6 hours, and my family waited "into the 6th hour" meaning 5 hours and 5 minutes. Even though other people come from different backgrounds and have different ways of doing things, and that's totally ok for them, we were supposed to follow what our family tradition was.  My dad was a BT but his parents were "traditional" jews and had a lot of family traditions- and their parents/childhood was orthodox so my dad saw it as returning to the practice his parents originally kept as children.

Anyway this got me thinking about my parent's emphasis on our family heritage of judaism and how important it is to do things like our family (although my parents did change their practice over time- for instance even though my grandmother always covered her hair since my mom was born, my mom didn't start covering her hair until I was around 12 years old - but she was changing to be more similar to her family). My family spend so much time emphasizing our jewish heritage that I think to some extent, I have ended up ignoring other "heritages" I have as well.  I know almost nothing about many of these other heritages I am a part of, although there are some that I know a lot about (like my feminist heritage).

So what other heritages am I part of?

1. The feminist / outspoken woman heritage. This heritage goes back to Eve eating of the forbidden fruit of knowledge even though she was told not to, if you believe such things. And back to Joan of Arc and Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf and Sojourner Truth, and the midwives and outspoken women who were burned at the stake in the late middle ages, and those put on bedrest and given medications if they were unhappy with their lot in life in the Victorian era like Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The women who expressed dissatisfaction in life were told they had a "Wandering uterus" or "Hysteria" and that the cure was sex and in some cases pregnancy- which is how the vibrator was invented, as a 'medical device" (no joke). The Gloria Steinem's seeing something wrong in the world, and writing about it, and hopefully making a bit of difference in the world.

2. The more general heritage of rabble rousers trying to make a difference in the world, the people who marched for union rights and women's rights and civil rights and sexuality rights and stood up for their freedom, and didn't just stay home and hope someone else would do it.

3. The agricultural heritage of humans, passing on the knowledge and seeds from hand to hand and collected from plants to start the cycle again.  The Native Americans who developed the pepper, corn, potatoes and squash that I am growing this summer. Did you know that corn can't reproduce by itself- it was developed by humans, and without human intervention there would be no more corn within 1 or 2 years. So humans have been passing on and keeping corn alive for thousands of years. Humans have been passing on and keeping domesticated tasty animals alive and making sure those animals are having enough children to continue the species for thousands of generations.

4. The dog heritage of people who domesticated and trained wolves until they became the hound dogs I've trained now. The heritage of humans living closely alongside dogs, and once agriculture was created and people settled down - cats as well.

5. The heritage of sociologists who have been passing down knowledge from generation to generation. The heritage of the specific idiosyncratic type of training I got from my advisers in grad school and another one as an undergrad, passed down from the professors who taught it to them, and the people who taught it to their professors and so on going back generations. 

6. The heritage of academics more generally, and the tradition of education and higher education going back hundreds and thousands of years and including places like the library of alexandria, the teachings of socrates and plato and aristotle that I teach to my students, the tradition that created math and passed down that knowledge across generations.  The legacy of the scientific method, and the ability to use it correctly to analyze and present knoweldge, and teaching it to the students of the next generation seems to me like an "unbroken chain" that's pretty damn important.

7. My American heritage. More so than I'm a Jewish person, I'm an American. I may gripe about this country and the good for nothing tools in congress right now elected by a populas that couldn't tell the difference between a stateman and a cereal box, but I do love this country. There are few other countries in the world where I could be an open atheist, where civil rights are such an important part of our history, and many where I'd have to cover my hair and would have very few options in life, especially as a woman. Unlike any other country we also are the great salad bowl into which all cultures mix, and we have such a diversity of people and viewpoints and cultures all coming to meld together and make great things. That's pretty darn cool. I feel lucky to have been born here, despite our problems.

8.I also have other ethnic heritages. My grandparents are from Poland, and I know very little about how long they were there or anything about my polish ancestry until the holocaust time. My ancestors certainly intermarried with polish people- my grandparents on that side looked more polish than jewish. On the other side I'm Romanian, which is where I get my darkish coloring from. I also know ashkenazi jews (which i am) have a large number of Turkish people in their ancestry, so I'm likely part Turkish. Along with of course part middle eastern/original jewish.

9, Finally there is my skeptic's heritage, the jewish "Off the derech" heritage which is something unique in itself, going back to Spinoza and the great Hasklah movement of the 1800s (1700s?) which I knew nothing about before going OTD (and which I still barely know anything about), to Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology, whose own father and grandfather and great grandfather were orthodox jewish Rabbis in France.  Durkheim was completely secular and wrote a great book on why people feel compelled to make up religions.

I have way more heritage than just my #10: jewish heritage. After learning about that one for decades, I'd like to start learning about some of the other ones.


  1. One of the neatest things about the Olympics has been the true diversity of the American squad...

    Most countries are pretty homogenous, the Korean teams representing both Koreas were all filled with Koreans. Japan's team, all Japanese, China's team, all Chinese. A few African and Caribbean nations had one or two people of European extraction, likely a result of their former colonial days, but overall, a single ethnicity. Indeed, except for the former colonial lands, it is a very distinct ethnicity at that.

    The American team was a true mix, people of all sorts of family heritages all competing under the American banner, all saluting the American flag, and all wearing the red white and blue of America. It was truly a sight to take in at the opening ceremonies (caveat, we look extra diverse @ the opening ceremony because the swimmers don't participate because they compete in the morning, which removes a bunch of white bodies from the US squad).

    Israel is also somewhat diverse of a squad, since Jews from all corners of the globe moved there and bring their physical diversity, even without religious diversity, something kind of neat to observe... especially given how many NY area Jews think that Jews look/talk a certain way...

  2. "Unlike any other country we also are the great salad bowl into which all cultures mix, and we have such a diversity of people and viewpoints and cultures all coming to meld together and make great things. That's pretty darn cool. I feel lucky to have been born here, despite our problems."

    American diversity is indeed wonderful, but it is not unique. Look at Canada - Toronto is arguably more multicultural than New York.

  3. Canada is much more White than the US- 80% of people are White. There are also almost no Black people in Canada (2.5%) and only 1% Latino, 4% are aboriginals and the other 12% are Asian

    In the US non-hispanic Whites are 65%, 16% Latino, 12% Black, 5% Asian and 1% Native American

    We're #1! :)

  4. Most of Latin America has more racial diversity than the US... As far as immigrants being generally welcome and an open democratic society, see as well as Canada, Australia...

  5. Yes but is most of Latin America as developed as the United States?

    Also they may have more racial diversity but do they have more ethnic diversity? Or is the racial diversity based on their ancestry (Combo of Native Americans, Spanish and other colonialists, and Black people originally brought over as slaves, right?) but most have a Latino ethnic identity? I honestly have no idea what the answer to that is.

    I think what we have here is not only racial diversity, but also cultural diversity...the fact that in some rinky dink place in the South, like where I live, I can walk down the street next to my office and my food options include Thai, Japanese, Chinese, European style bistros, coffee shops, a southern bbq place or 3, Indian, Jamaican, Mexican, "Pan asian and south american", a NY style pizza place, and a Subway all in 2 blocks.

    I'm not saying we're the ONLY country like this out there either. Just saying that compared to some places I could be, and some places my recent ancestors lived, it's pretty darn awesome to be here.

  6. Well, you kinda did say that America was the ONLY country like that when you said "unlike any other country", but your correction/clarification is noted and appreciated.

    Still think that the greater Toronto and Vancouver areas have greater ethnic diversity - half of the population was born outside of Canada, and they each have a wide representation of ethnicities. [Oh, and we can tell the difference between Sikhs and Muslims too.]

    As for the rest of your post...I guess I've just demonstrated my Canadian heritage! I get a little peeved at the stereotype that all Jews come from the New York area. Ditto the stereotype that all Jews are White/European - dh has a very distinct Iraqi heritage. It's also interesting that you mention "hidden" heritage, such as possible Turkish influence. In university, dh suddenly realized that his father didn't look Iraqi - he looked East Indian (to the point that Indian friends were commenting "your dad looks just like mine!"). We subsequently discovered that Iraqi Jewish traders had a significant presence in Mumbai, so we believe that's part of his heritage.

    Another pet peeve of mine is the way that some in the Orthodox community will push the "follow the family/community customs" ideas, but ONLY when it involves taking on stricter rules. If they find someone who was less religious, some will say that they should take on the customs of the rabbi who made them more religious. I find that incredibly disrespectful to the family of the BT.

    Personally, I like to play it the other way. My dad was raised in Montreal's Spanish and Portuguese shul, which also happens to be Sephardic and currently has a wide range of North African and Middle Eastern Jews including Iraqis, so I'm legitimately claiming its positions. If my Orthodox bubby could tell me all about her rebbetzin wearing a tallit, and if the rabbi demostrates solidarity with the gay community over hate crimes, then that's valid for my family, right?

    Finally, I get a bit annoyed at those that would ignore the Jewish radical tradition. There's this patronizing myth by some in the frum community that Jews were led astray by outside liberal values as they assimilated in North America. It's closer to the truth to say that in many cases, Jews themselves were the rabble-rousers who were agitating for social change in the rest of society. Family minhag on my mom's side includes the United Jewish People's Order (ie. socialists), garment workers and union activism. On both sides, it includes activism and commitment to freedom and equality.

  7. JRKMommy,

    Vancouver and Toronto are VERY diverse cities. Canada overall, not so much.

    I mean, if you came to the US on a trip, and visited NYC, LA, and San Francisco, you would be VERY confused to read news reports about white evangelical Christians, thinking that they don't exist. :)

  8. This gives me food for thought. I am part of the heritage of women artists- Cassat, O'Keefe who have an are leveling the art world playing field.

  9. Wonderful! This reminds me, AE, of your frequent assertions that your marriage is not an "intermarriage" since you and your husband are on similar pages with respect to the most important issues in life...and of course, I agree with those assertions. This makes me want to resume writing!

  10. The American/Canadian diversity discussion brings up another issue related to your original post: What differences do we see and acknowledge? At what point do different societies see a characteristic as a heritage (or ethnicity or race or other group thing) as opposed to just an individual difference?

    For example, I was initially taken aback when you cited your stats on Canada vs. the US, and then I realized that we use different terminology. Americans "see" Latinos, who are a group that includes Whites, Natives and Blacks and various combinations thereof, as a single group, and do not "see" Hispanic Whites as being part of the White category. By contrast, through American eyes, all Whites in Canada are lumped together, without regard to ethno-linguistic background. By contrast, Canadians "see" Latinos who are White or partially White as simply being White (according to official definitions of "visible minority"). On the other hand, Canadians are far more likely to identify French-Canadians during any discussion of demographics, since they are considered a distinct group for political, historical, cultural, linguistic and religious reasons.

    In the Jewish community, I find a range of views toward seeing other identities. My Indian friends are proud to be both Indian and Israeli and see no conflict with having both identities. By contrast, Eastern European Jews who fled the shtetl don't tend to identify with other Eastern Europeans - they will identify with the specific Eastern European JEWISH community, but if someone happens to have blond hair and blue eyes, it's not unusual to hear "someone must have been raped by a Cossack". I also notice a tension in Israel between celebrating the diverse national backgrounds of Jews, vs. stressing the common Israeli Jewish identity. I know there is a shtetl fetish, but there are other cultures in danger of disappearing. We are trying to record my husband's surviving aunts now, because when they are gone, there won't be any Jews left who remember life in Iraq. The some can be said about the Ethiopian Jewish community - you have this amazing story of a religious group living in relative isolation, separated from the mainstream Jewish community for over 2,000 years, but the desire for integration is winning out and their distinctive beliefs and practices are not being preserved.

  11. Thought you might find this interesting

  12. Shana tova u'metuka and a gmar chatima tova.


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