penelope and bumblebee

Good grammar costs nothing.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

It's Tradition

For many Jews, this is a time of year that is marked with reflection, hope, celebration and, most importantly to me, tradition. Holidays are piled on top of one another right now, and regardless of degree of religious practice, some form of observation usually marks these holidays.

When I was little, my favourite holiday was the festival of Sukkot. It occurs 5 days after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the most solemn of the Jewish year. In contrast, Sukkot is joyous, a celebration of the harvest. My neighbours would erect a Sukkah – a temporary dwelling that you eat your meals in for 7 days, decorate it with gourds and corn, and invite all the neighbourhood children in for tea and cookies. Sukkot was also the only occasion on which – besides weddings and bar mitzvahs – my family would attend Synagogue. It was fun. There was a parade and candy and funny hats, and we would go with my best friend and her family and get to stay up late.

The holiday ‘season’ for us typically begins in September (the Jewish calendar is different, so it might be pushed to October) with Rosh Hashana, the New Year, and 10 days later, Yom Kippur. Observing these holidays, for my family, meant getting together and eating. Food was always more important than prayers, and to my grandfather, the patriarch of my maternal family, prayers did you no good if there was no food. This sentiment could be widely argued by many, but nobody would ‘win’ on the basis of religious education or understanding. My grandfather knew his religion, and human nature, well. And he had known hunger well.

But he was impatient with religion, so we ate. We would take turns gathering at either my mother’s house or my aunt’s. Card tables would be pushed up against dining room tables, and the children (even as we became adults) would be happily annexed there. On Rosh Hashana, apples and honey were passed around the table, to signify the hope for a good, sweet New Year. On Yom Kippur, the plates were passed the moment the sun set, in case any of my family members were actually breaking the fast that should have begun at sundown the previous day. My mother would make a host of items that the children never ate – gifilte fish with chain, chopped liver, green beans – holding out for her chicken soup with matzo balls (always with matzo balls, even if it was months before Passover) and turkey and brisket and roasted potatoes, or my aunt’s traditional Hungarian meatballs and lukchen kugel with raisins and apples. We ate.

And we talked – or, more aptly, my grandfather yelled. About points of family history that somebody had invariably gotten wrong (‘Fanny, it was ‘76 when we went to Vegas with Helen and Lou!’), or what car had performed the most admirably in its day (‘Nothing beat my Buick. You can keep your Cadillac!’), or he would tell us, again, to our delight, the story of how we won the war with my aunt’s hard, hard matzo balls. What war, he never specified, but we put them in the cannons, and the enemy was defeated. He liked my mother’s better. They were soft. The hard v. soft matzo ball debate was a favourite at our table.

And we laughed. And sang. Our holidays were marked with full houses and arguing and noise and a dog barking for leftovers, and not a little bit of chaos. And joy.

And I miss it so, so much.

My grandparents both died the summer I got pregnant. Their death widened a crack in my mother and her sister’s relationship. The crack became a chasm, the chasm, an abyss. My parents’ marriage ended. My dad moved away. The last holiday my family spent together was Rosh Hashana, 2004. I have not seen my aunt or my cousins since the following January. My cousins are both married now, and the elder cousin and his wife have a baby. I have a baby. It is a complicated situation; more complicated than just calling someone up and saying, ‘Let’s end this.’ But probably not.

So our holidays have changed. Last year we gathered at my mum’s apartment; still ate; still talked; still laughed. But it was not the same, of course. From a table of 16, we were down to a table of 6. This year, my mother went to my sister on the West Coast. So, it was just us, and I didn’t know what to do, so I became sad, and did nothing.

I talked about it with Chris, and he tried his best to elevate my spirits. But it is not his family that fell apart (although he was close with them as well and became my rock during that time), and it is not his holiday, really, so his suggestions that we just move on and find our own traditions angered me, initially.

But he is right. It is time for us to cultivate our own traditions, which are borne of our own family. And really, we have already begun to do that. Chris and I have the traditions that we enjoy as a couple, and we have begun to see the root of family traditions take hold as well.

They don’t have to revolve around a specific occasion, or happen annually. Some do, like the way we go whole hog for Halloween, decorating the house and making costumes and buying the ‘good’ candy (read – chocolate bars). Others don’t – the spur of the moment day trips guided only by our desire for a bit of adventure and our trusty backroads map, and barbeques with whoever wants to come over Sunday afternoon and sit on our back porch. And some are things that I hope to become traditions, like bee’s birthday party with lots of friends, and going to our favourite beach when we visit my dad in Florida, and going apple-picking, and eating pizza and watching movies together on the weekend (ok, this tradition will probably end when bee turns 14, but we’ll give it a go anyway).

I guess the moral of the story is that, regardless of how much we want them back, things change. Things go away. And I don’t want bee to miss out because I can’t let go. I want her to be able to look forward to the holidays because they have become a personification of her own crazy family. I want her to know the security and joy and comfort in these things that I did. I want her to know her family by the things that we do together, and to take them and make them into her own, when it is her turn.

And so, my new year’s resolution is this: to ensure that the traditions that I have always held so dear become hers – become ours.
But I’m still not eating the gifilte fish.


  • At 3:24 PM, Blogger scarbie doll said…

    Wow. You have a way of writing that puts me right in the moment. You had me wishing I was Jewish (I would SO try gifilte fish!)

    It's sad. I feel the same way. For us the family changed when my overbearing, family-loving uncle passed away. He was the patriarch of our family and enforced traditions like Sunday dinners. Now, the rest of us are too tired to take the reins. Gone are the weekends of kids running amok and forced second helpings. I miss it too.

  • At 4:25 PM, Blogger Christina said…

    We've seen a lot of traditions change, too, and while I miss some of those old traditions, I am trying to embrace the new ones. And since my husband and I come from very different backgrounds, we're forming a lot of new traditions.

    Oh, and until I married my husband, I had no idea how tasty brisket is. Yum!

  • At 5:07 PM, Blogger something blue said…

    I hold family tradition close to my heart. It is what I hope to establish for my family especially being that my husband's extended family is not closely knit and mine are too far away.

    My happiest memories are of food and laughter shared with my parents, brother, many cousins, Aunts, Uncles and Grandparents (who really are the glue that keep everyone together.)

    Our children will appreciate every ritual that we establish and will fondly recall all those special moments.

  • At 6:01 PM, Blogger jen said…

    its SO true. it's so hard to accept that yes, things change, but the reward is we do have the power for forge our own traditions. and while they might be filled w/ longing for us, for our kids, they are theirs, and ones they'll one day reflect on and carry down.

  • At 10:50 PM, Blogger metro mama said…

    Wow, today is the day to talk about religion (or lack of it).

    My family is happy to help you build on the halloween tradition. Can you help me sew something for Cakes?

  • At 12:20 AM, Blogger crazymumma said…

    It is so sad when we lose tradition. But you sound dedicated to creating tradition, and from there maybe your home will be the new pull for your family....

  • At 12:40 AM, Blogger nomotherearth said…

    Your post brought tears to my eyes. I've actually been thinking a lot about traditions lately because The Boy is starting to take notice of what's going on around him. I think that now, more than last year (a year of "firsts"), I am driven to make each an every occasion something special. Something to look forward to the way that I looked forward to the traditions of my youth. For while, I felt sad because we, like you, couldn't do things the way I am used to. But it is all about making new traditions, isn't it? An excellent goal, and I think I will follow in your footsteps. Great post!

  • At 1:36 AM, Blogger Haley-O said…

    Beautiful post, Penelopeto....It's unfortunate that things have to change. My husband insisted we switch synagogues. The holidays are just not the same in this new synagogue, without my parents, without the friends I grew up with, without the rabbi, the cantor. I want the monkey to experience synagogue the way I did; I want her to have that connection. But, as you realize, I have to let go and form new traditions and bring what I can of the old into the new. She'll find connection in the new synagogue, in with my hubby's family, too....It's hard. I'm not eating gefilte fish either....! Shana Tova!

  • At 3:37 AM, Blogger Lady M said…

    That was beautifully written. It's important to take the time to think about what kind of traditions we want to establish - I've been scurrying along busily, but ought to step back and think about it too.

  • At 2:27 PM, Blogger SpeakEasy said…

    Wow, Penelope, that post also was full of emotion. UrbanMummy and I have had to start our own traditions based on the way our families have treated us. I also lost my Dad and Grandfather soon before the baby was born and as a result, the whole family was thrown out of whack. People became crabby, things were said and new traditions came out from it. Even this year, we celebrated Rosh Hashanah by having dinner at 8pm. 8pm??? Happy Boy's bedtime is 7:30. It was completely thoughtless and unless it changes, yet another tradition will begin. It's sad, but it's inevitable.

    Like Haley said, she wanted her daughter to experience shul the way she did. It's tramatic for some.

    Oh, and gefilte fish ROCKS!!!

    P.S. Go gung-ho on Halloween... We are. :)

  • At 4:56 PM, Anonymous mamatulip said…

    Oh, this is such a fabulous post -- I love reading about your family gatherings, your traditions, the things that you loved as a child and miss now (I'm sorry that you miss them, but I enjoyed reading about them -- boy, do you have a way with words).

    I'm sorry that your family has split. That has to be very difficult. There are some rifts deepening and widening in my husband's family and it's hard to watch.

    When you said how your husband suggested you start your own family traditions, I easily related to your initial feelings of anger. Holidays, for me, revolved around my mom and her family, and when she died our special traditions died with her. The first year after her death, going through the Easters, Christmasses and Hallowe'en's, I was angry. And I longed for what my mom had created for me, for us. When Dave (and some other friends of mine) suggested that we start some new traditions that included my father and Dave's family, I resisted. But I've come around, and I have to say that seeing my family together is one of the biggest joys of my life.

    Sorry for going on and on and on. I just love this post; thanks for sharing your memories and your traditions with me (us).

  • At 11:12 AM, Blogger sunshine scribe said…

    My husband's family has experienced the same thing. The chasm. The abyss. And this is so hard.

    We too have decided to create our own family traditions and I am really loving that.

    I hope yours are filled with all the laughter, talking and food that your childhood memories recall ... and more :)

    Great post!

  • At 12:50 PM, Blogger Lisa b said…

    I think it is so amazing for kids to grow up with extended as family you did. I am in the same boat as you with creating our own family traditions on a much smaller scale than I had anticipated.It is daunting but also exciting to think of the kinds of experiences you want your child to look back on.
    I think yours is a perfect new year's resolution.

  • At 12:52 PM, Blogger Lisa b said…

    Ps you know what I find most daunting? That I totally agree with your grandfather about food being the most important aspect of holidays and I am a terrible cook!

  • At 1:17 PM, Blogger Mrs. Chicky said…

    This was wonderful! You got me all misty for my family's traditional Christmas gatherings. We don't celebrate like we used to and I really miss it, especially now that I have a child whom I want to share traditions with.


    Now I want brisket.

  • At 9:28 AM, Blogger penelopeto said…

    Thank you all for sharing your own traditions and stories with me - I feel comforted and inspired :)

    Maybe you can all come for dinner - brisket and gifilte fish!

  • At 12:42 AM, Blogger lildb said…

    this post breaks my heart a little. but it also feels hopeful. you are choosing well, and your daughter will gain by that choice.

    and thanks for the tales of your happy memories. they're lovely.


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