Judaism: Fresh is Best
by Rabbi Thomas Gardner
I once read an autobiography called Turbulent Souls, written by a man who grew up Catholic. It was only after he had become an adult that he learned that both of his parents had been born Jewish. My favorite part of the book was when he acknowledged that he probably should have guessed earlier, since after returning from Mass every Sunday, his father would eat gefilte fish, while singing to the author’s mother My Yiddishe Mama.
When we think of a Jewish person, what do we think of? Do we think of a man with a long white beard with a black hat? Does he eat gefilte fish and sing Yiddish songs? Does he have a strong accent and live in the Northeast?
Fewer and fewer people have parents or grandparents who spoke Yiddish. Matzah ball soup and gefilte fish are more likely to be items that we eat only when we gather for a specifically Jewish meal. When my father was growing up, one of the condiments always on the table was a jar of schmaltz. Not many people keep schmaltz on the table today.
The truth of the matter is that the culture we think of as “Jewish,” is specific to a certain time and place. The Jewish culture of Morocco or India is as foreign to us as, say, Lutheran culture, if not more so. Even the culture of Eastern European Jews, from whom much of our so-called Jewish culture comes, would look strange to us if we went back a few hundred years.
When people convert to Judaism, they sometimes feel at a loss because they missed out on Jewish culture growing up. Their father didn’t have schmaltz on the table. Nobody drank “two cents plain.” Yet those cultural markers speak more to nostalgia than to anything integral to Judaism. American Jews today live all over the country. Most of them don’t speak Yiddish, and most of them don’t have beards (given that half are women). There are African American Jews, Asian Jews, and Native American Jews. There are Jews who have grown up with every kind of family, and with every kind of religion.
Yet while many things change, some things remain the same. Jewish food from any country and in any time period is meat or dairy, but not both. The way we celebrate holidays may change, but the holidays themselves stay the same. The Reform prayerbook may have changed a little more than the Orthodox prayerbook, but both would be instantly recognizable to our ancestors.
The power of Judaism comes from the fact that it has a wonderful and beautiful culture, which is rooted in things that do not change– G-d, the Torah, the People Israel, prayer, study, and charity. Culture changes all the time, although often too slowly for us to notice. If it didn’t, it would not be as meaningful to us. But we should never mistake the culture of Judaism for the heart of Judaism.
According to Rabbi Larry Hoffman, it only takes one generation for something to become a Jewish tradition. If you did not grow up with Jewish culture, make your own. Your children will feel that much more connected to Judaism.
There is a story about a table of scholars. Each one took a turn boasting about his illustrious ancestors, and quoting their teachings. When Rabbi Yechiel of Ostrowce’s turn came, he told the table that he was the first eminent person in his family. However, regarding wisdom, he had learned some from his father, a baker. His father had taught him that the freshest bread is best, and that no one likes what is stale. The same, said Rabbi Yechiel, applies to Judaism.
Rabbi Thomas Gardner is the spiritual leader of Beth Shalom Synagogue in Baton Rouge, LA.