Thursday, October 23, 2008


I often wonder about tradition. It is a comfortable blanket in which we wrap ourselves, savoring fond memories of times past and lost loved ones. It is a time for connection to the essence of who we are. It can also be a barrier to innovation and progress.

In my own family as I was growing up, Christmas was the season of both giving and ironclad invariability. I loved the warm cozy feeling of climbing onto my parents’ bed to open the presents tumbling out of my stocking. I also remember, years later, when my wife, a newly arrived outsider, dared to make a slight, ever so slight, modification to the Christmas dinner that had been passed down for generations. Twenty years later, my family has still not quite recovered.

I recently attended a Bat Mitzvah, an important ritual to mark the passage from girlhood into adulthood in Judaism, one of the world’s oldest religions. I felt blessed to be invited by of a former student, now a young teen, whose parents were kind enough to indicate that I had been a reasonably positive influence during their daughter’s formative years.

I was honored to be asked to read, in Hebrew, a blessing before she read from the Torah. I was initially alarmed at the thought of reciting in public in a mostly unfamiliar language. However, my beautiful wife, with forty-odd years of Jewish wisdom and custom behind her, served as an excellent coach and I managed to get through my few Hebrew sentences embarrassing neither myself nor the young adult in question.

A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a huge deal. I have been to a few in my time. Some are simple affairs with close family and friends, words of love and respect, with a light lunch to follow. Others are marked by lavish parties that surely cost ten times what my wife and I spent on our wedding. Bands, magicians, limousines, extravagant parting gifts for the guest list of hundreds, the works. All over the country, at this moment, twelve and thirteen year old Jewish boys and girls are hard at work studying the history and tradition of their people, practicing the portion of the Torah that they will have to chant before the assembled masses.

I find it quite fascinating that this pivotal occasion occurs at the exact moment in human development when young teens covet nothing more than not to be noticed, when boys’ voices squeak between octaves, when adolescents are trying on the wings of independence, when the last thing a thirteen year old wants is their mother gushing ad nauseam, in front of their eighth grade friends no less, about how special they are and how grown up they look.

For this is exactly what happens.

On this particular occasion, the mother began her address by stating that she had promised to her daughter that her comments would be “neither long nor cheesy”. She promptly amended her remarks, again assuring brevity, but stating, in not so many words, that a full load of Gorgonzola was coming right up. It was all the daughter could do not to roll her eyes. After all, Grandma had flown in from Florida and the Rabbi was standing right there,

Mom spouted effusively about her only daughter: the toddler years, the first day of kindergarten, lying in bed together reading stories, recent trips to the mall where the two of them, by the mother’s estimation, gadded about like teenage girls. The girl of the hour made it pretty clear, by her facial expression, that she had a different take on the whole business.

And then it was Dad’s turn. He took full advantage of his opportunity at the microphone, so proud of his precious bundle, in awe of the beautiful young lady in front of him. He was loaded with wise counsel for this next part of his daughter’s journey into womanhood. One particular gem had been passed down to him from his own grandfather. An Emersonian ideal, it had been reduced to the simple “Leave the campsite better than you found it!” Truly words to live by, though the wider significance seemed to be lost on the great-granddaughter.

I hope Dad had paid someone to record the events of the day. I know that this particular thirteen year old, fortunate to be so clearly loved and cherished by her family and friends, won’t remember everything spoken to her that day. I hope that she will look back to her time in the spotlight and come to understand fully the gifts presented to her during the time of her coming of age. Not the material goods, the menorahs and the iTunes gift cards, but the stories handed down by an adoring family for whom she represents life itself. I hope she will recall and contemplate the pearls of wisdom passed down in the proud tradition of her forebears. These are the moments of true living.

How many of us, outside the Jewish faith, have such an opportunity? Every family, every religion, has its traditions, the ways it celebrates the passages of time. I love the lines spoken by Tevye, the father in Fiddler on the Roof: “You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I'll tell you. I don't know. But it's a tradition.” We may not know where are own traditions come from, but they are important. They matter and they present opportunities for us to teach the next generation. Of course, the next generation may not be ready for the lessons, but as guiding adults, we can only hope that they will sink in with time. For time and experience have been such powerful teachers for us.

I left the Bat Mitzvah service that day thinking about my own children. We are not raising them in one particular faith. We are what some call an interfaith family, although the faith, mine in particular, is somewhat limited. My daughters may not have a formal opportunity to participate in a religious event which marks their arrival into adulthood. When they are thirteen years old, a few short years hence, they may be happy that we spare them the sheer embarrassment of being up on stage listening to their mother and I wax eloquent about how long it took to potty train them or their first swimming lesson. I do have quite a collection of stories, some with photographs to match. But they may also miss the chance for us to tell them, in the presence of the most important people in their lives, all that they have brought to us, the absolute joy and love in our hearts.

When my daughters were babies, their mother and I designed non-denominational Naming Ceremonies for each of them. We wrote them ourselves. We had the extended family, the candles, the gifts, the festive food. We spoke from the heart, as did their godparents and grandparents. We promised to raise them as best we know how, to love and cherish them for all of our lives. But they were a little preoccupied at the time with the things that are steadfastly important to the under-three-month crowd: sleeping, nursing, filling their diapers. They missed the message.

But in the years since, another tradition has been born. Like Tevye, I don’t really know how it got started. Must have just happened one day, and then another, and another. No pomp and ceremony of a Bat Mitzvah. No distant aunts and uncles or hoopla or kreplach. No dancing teens or rolling of the eyes. Something simple. Something that hasn’t cost a cent. Something filled with meaning and sincerity and love. It goes like this.

At night, in bed, after the lights are out. It is dark. It is quiet. The toil of the day is becoming a distant memory. The bedtime story is read and put aside. We talk. My wife and I alternate. I spend part of one evening with my older daughter, the next evening with my younger. We talk about her day and mine, the fun, the successes and the struggles. What happened in school, which friends were significant, and what they had for lunch. Sometimes we tell jokes and sometimes we sing.

Sometimes we’re just quiet. But most of all I tell my girls what they mean to me, how much I love them, and they tell me the same. It is a sacred time of talking and listening, opening up, and truly hearing one another. We even have our very own special words for saying goodnight. The same exact words, repeated every night for years now. I would not trade this time for the world.

Like all traditions, this one started out small and turned into a routine. Now it is an essential part of life, as important to my family as the candles on the Menorah or the penguin on top of our Christmas tree. Yes, the penguin’s also a family tradition, but a story for another day.

As adults, as parents, we cannot control tradition. We have no say in whether our values and customs will be carried forward by the next generation. But we can lay down the tracks and try to start the train rolling in a positive direction. Our children will, in all likelihood, veer off course for a while, but we hope we have given them enough to be able to get themselves back on track. And we don’t necessarily need a party or a public forum to hand down our wisdom. We do the little things. We teach them, we hold them, we love them, and we let them go. And that is a tradition I can live with.

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