The Importance of Jewish Family Traditions
When I was a child, my sister and I had two narrow wooden chests of drawers in our shared basement bedroom. I knew they had once belonged to our maternal grandmother and that they had been part of her bedroom set when she was a young bride.
Years later, the chests were moved from New York to Florida, returned to my grandmother to help furnish the second-floor apartment she and my grandfather shared in a retirement village.When my grandparents closed out that apartment to move to an assisted living facility, the two chests of drawers and the matching half-moon table were redistributed. My married sister took possession of the table, my mother took one of the chests and, since I was too young at the time to have a home of my own, my grandmother gifted the second chest to a lifelong friend of my mother’s.
When I became an adult, my mother’s friend promised she would leave it for me in her will. Decades have gone by and my mother’s old friend passed away last week. The chest that matches the one in my mother’s bedroom is being returned to our family. As soon as I figure out how to get it from Florida to Israel, it will grace the entrance to our home.
Wooden furniture is sort of a family tradition.The table at which I sit while typing these words is my childhood dining room table. I have clear memories of my father, of blessed memory, taking me to a high-end furniture store when I was a teenager and teaching me how to tell quality from poorly-constructed pieces. When I worked in the catalog department of JCPenney’s in high school, I used my employee discount to buy a rocking chair that sits not 10 feet away from me right now.
Yeah, I have a lot of strong childhood associations with furniture. They are part of my family story.
It’s not unusual for Jewish families to develop their own idiosyncratic customs around events in the Jewish calendar. I did a quick Facebook survey of people’s family customs and uncovered some really charming ones.
One family makes up simanim at Rosh Hashana. On the first night of Rosh Hashana, there is a common custom to eat symbolic foods intended to invoke a particular blessing in the upcoming year. The most common is, of course, dipping apples in honey in the hopes of having a sweet new year. There are about a dozen other traditional ones. But some creative families use both English and Hebrew word play to come up with funny, silly or clever ones.
Special foods for special times of year are pretty common in Jewish families. I have a killer recipe for moist mondel bread that I only make on Rosh Hashana. And each year, I think of the woman, the daughter of my grandparents’ friends, who first served it to me at her Rosh Hashana table over 30 years ago.
Another family blows out the yartzeit candle at the end of Yom Kippur and relights it on Hoshana Rabba, when Jewish tradition teaches that the final judgement regarding the upcoming year is truly sealed.The woman who told me about this family tradition laughingly added, “Part of the minhag (custom) is forgetting to re-light it on Hoshana Rabba.”
Lots of families have special traditions like treating the children to Birthday Shabbat where they get to choose the menu or having them choose the restaurant for a family birthday dinner or treating them to pizza and ice cream alone with one of the parents.
I was particularly touched by the Shabbat customs people mentioned, like having everyone share a highlight of their week around the Friday night Shabbat table or taking a moment to thank a family member for something specific at havdalah time. There are lots of families that sing special songs at the Seder meal or after havdalah. In our house, we use drums and tambourines and percussion egg shakers to jazz up havdalah.
In last week’s Torah portion, we met five of the most inspirational women in all of Tanach.They are known collectively as the Daughters of Tzelafchad who, upon learning that they would have no share in the Land of Israel because they had neither brothers nor a father, brought a petition to Moses to request a share in the Land for themselves.
The daughters of Tzelafchad the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph, came forward, and his daughters' names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. (Bamidbar 27:1)
The Torah traces their lineage back to Joseph because he so loved the Land of Israel that, even though he spent his adult life as a ruler in Egypt, he requested to be buried in Israel.
Moses took Joseph's bones with him, for he [Joseph] had adjured the sons of Israel, saying, God will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you. (Exodus 13:19)
For me, hand-me-down wooden furniture, mondel bread with lemon icing on Rosh Hashana and an instrumental havdalah are meaningful family traditions. For the Daughters of Tzelafchad, it was a love for Israel inherited from their great-great-great-great-great grandfather Joseph. For others, it’s a special food, a special song, a special birthday, Shabbat or holiday custom, that helps bind their Jewish family together.
In a recent article, Rabbi Jonathan Sachs summarizes the importance of nurturing family traditions quite nicely. “The life-changing idea here is surely simple yet profound: if we truly wish to hand on our legacy to our children, we must teach them to love it. The most important element of any education is not learning facts or skills but learning what to love. What we love, we inherit. What we fail to love, we lose.”
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