Thursday, November 20, 2008

Jewish Traditions

Tradition...when I hear that word I immediately picture Fiddler on the Roof's Tevye singing about the traditions being carried on by each papa, mama, son, and daughter in the town. Also when I hear the word tradition, I think of religious traditions above any other kind. I think my ancestors had more traditions than we do now but a few have stayed with us.

Being Jewish is so much about traditions and there are plenty of holidays. From what I understand of the holidays, two, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are the only purely religious holidays. All of the other Jewish holidays commemorate historical events. Rosh Hashanah is a two day holiday, the first two days of the new year on the Hebrew calendar. Aside from wishing my Jewish family and friends a "Happy New Year" I don't do anything. Yom Kippur, the tenth day of the new year, is the day of atonement. I don't fast, never have, but I do light my Yizkor (remembrance) candle in honor of the members of the family who are no longer with us. Thanks to my genealogy research, that candle is in memory of more ancestors each year. I don't go to work on Yom Kippur and just spend a quiet day at home. These first ten days of the Jewish new year, referred to as the High Holy Days, are the most important days on the Hebrew calendar.

The two holidays that I most associate with family traditions are Hanukkah/Chanukah and Passover. Many non-Jews think that Hanukkah is a very important holiday because it happens to fall close to Christmas but it is actually a minor holiday. Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the temple, when one night's oil lasted for eight nights. The menorah candles are lit each night, one the first night, two the second night, etc., from right to left, until the eighth night when all of the candles are lit. This I do each year on the silver menorah I've had since my Grandma Irene passed away. It is common to hand out Hanukkah gelt, foil wrapped chocolate coins, and for children to play the dreidel game. When my sisters and I were young, Hanukkah was more about receiving gifts and who gets to light the most candles. The older I get, the more meaning it seems to have.

Passover commemorates the period when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt and their escape from bondage. At the Seder table, the family takes turns reading from the Hagadah, re-telling the Exodus story. The Seder plate contains items symbolizing different parts of the story. We eat matzoh to remember the haste with which the Hebrews had to leave Egypt and a small piece of potato soaked in salt water to remember the sweat of hard labor. My Aunt Rochelle and Uncle Jerry have hosted the Seder for as long as I can remember. I missed the last couple of years for business reasons but that won't happen again (I hope). One tradition of our Seder meal is the matzoh ball soup. It's a large group so everyone gets one matzoh ball and one piece of carrot...a ball and a rod (yes, a dirty joke even at Passover) is what we call it.

I've always had an appreciation for the history and culture of the Jewish religion. It's the faith part that I just don't get. Since I've started researching my family history, I feel that I owe it to those ancestors who upended their lives to ensure that at least some of our traditions will be carried on to be more observant. I go through phases when I feel that I should join a synagogue but I have yet to do that.

I don't know if Tevye would approve of all of our traditions. He might be upset that we don't have more but I'm sure he'd enjoy his soup.

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