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.