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Do I Keep, Update or Discard Cultural Traditions I Grew Up With?

You don't have to do all the exploring alone.

by Chaya Milchtein
March 27, 2020 | Living

With chirping birds, newly budding trees and longer days, the world welcomes spring. As a child growing up in my parents’ home, these seasonal clues also welcomed Passover.

My mother, sisters and I would clean the house from top to bottom until everything smelled of Mr. Clean and then we would prepare to cook.

We'd sit at long folding tables covered with plastic tablecloths, peeling potato after potato after potato to feed my family and the many guests through the first days of the holiday.

Continuous line drawing of mother and daughter cooking a food. Rewire PBS Living Traditions
Deciding what traditions from your childhood to keep looks different for everybody.  |  Credit: Adobe

The preparations would consume our home and result in bitter, angry fights, incredible food and an exhausted mother who could barely enjoy the fruit of her month-long labor.

I grew up in a Hassidic Jewish home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a queer woman, for a long time I wasn't sure that holding on to any traditions or even being Jewish made sense for me. It often felt like the whole religion was based on hating people like me.

But I value my heritage and culture. So I've let go of some of the Jewish traditions of my youth to continue to celebrate in ways that fulfill me and fall in line with the lifestyle I want.

Deciding what traditions to keep, which to change and which to get rid of looks different for everybody. I asked five people from a variety of cultural backgrounds to share their thoughts and advice for choosing your own path.

Family values

For some, the decision is all about family memories.

Caitlin Doyle was raised in an Irish Catholic home and now lives in San Francisco, California. There's one tradition she hasn't changed.

"My brother and I make my dad's eggnog, from scratch, every year, I think even from the same Tupperware jug my dad's put it in for like 40 years."

As a third generation Serbian-American, Elena Farin has often questioned the patriarchal traditions of her family’s Serbian Orthodox Church. While there is much she's chosen to discard, she continues to celebrate her favorite Serbian holiday, Slava.

"The priest comes to a house of one of the family members, we all gather — this is a celebration that brings far flung family together — the priest prays for all of the family and blesses the house, and then we feast on amazing traditional foods prepared by everyone who came together," Farin said.

"It’s a really beautiful, unifying tradition and a good excuse to get our family together."

Others have more complex reasons for holding on to customs.

Nida Ahmad was raised in a traditionally Muslim family in Pakistan.

Now living in Missouri, Ahmad said that while she hasn't held on to many of her family’s religious practices, she does choose to follow their traditions when she visits home.

"I have to observe the traditions of my own culture, from the way I dress to the way I greet people," Ahmad said.

"It's easier to conform than to denounce religion officially, because apostasy is punishable by death."

Modifying to fit the present

Some traditions can be kept with a little personalization.

Mayuri Rajvanshi lives in India and is a freelance writer. Growing up, her family had a tradition of waking up early in the morning and praying.

This doesn't quite fit into her lifestyle since she works with clients in a variety of time zones. She updated the tradition, "by removing the early morning constraint and meditating whenever I wake up."

"Replacing prayers with meditation is a form of worship to me and an incredible self-care tool," Rajvanshi said.

While Alle C. Hall, from Seattle, Washington, had a bat mitzvah growing up and celebrated Hanukkah, that was the extent of her family's Jewish spiritual life.

But then, in the 1990s, Hall became part of a Jewish peer-led community group and began to incorporate more Jewish traditions back into her life. As she planned her wedding, there were some customs she chose to keep but update slightly.

During a Jewish wedding ceremony, traditionally the bride, with a veil covering her face, circles the groom seven times.

"It's an awful lot like marking territory. My now-husband and I decided that I would walk around him three times, he would walk around me three times, and we would join hands for a final, subdued, do-si-do," Hall said.

Alterations like Halls may not be 100 percent in keeping with religious observations but they build an important bridge, linking your childhood to your adult life.

Leaving the past behind

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there are traditions that don't fit into your lifestyle or way of looking at the world. After careful thought, you may choose to leave those behind.

Jewish tradition dictates that seafood be eaten only if it has "fins and scales" leaving out all shellfish and other bottom feeders. I'd chosen to hold onto this for years despite no longer being a traditionally practicing Jew.

At some point, I no longer understood why it was important to me. It didn't feel like a tradition that kept me connected to my people and I decided that it was time to leave that in my past. I was 21-years-old the first time I ate shrimp.

Rejecting customs can also be a way of rebelling.

In her family's tradition, wives touch their husband's feet as a form of respect, Rajvanshi said.

"Though it would cost me nothing to touch my husband's feet, I won't because defying this tradition is my way of standing up to patriarchy."

But how do you decide?

As loaded as religion, traditions and family relationships can be, how do you decide what's best for you?

For Doyle, this boiled down to one simple thing.

"It's been a matter of determining what makes me feel healthy and positive versus what makes me feel stressed and apprehensive," she said.

"Do whatever works for you, don't feel guilty for letting go of, or holding on to, parts of your culture and traditions," said Ahmad.

You don't have to do all the exploring alone, Farin said.

"There are others like you who share your experience — find them and ask them for resources and guidance."

Rajvanshi offered this advice:

“Instead of letting cultural traditions define you, why not look at them through the lenses of your own narrative. Have a minimum tolerance policy and any tradition that reeks of patriarchy, misogyny, or pseudo-science has to go.”

As for me?

Every spring, I host a Passover celebration, the Seder, my personal favorite tradition, for friends and mostly strangers with my fiancée. I typically take the day off of work, cook a four-course dinner and hire someone to clean up afterward.

As a dozen or more Jews and Jewish-adjacent people sit around my table, we sing, eat, and celebrate who we are as Jews today.

Because at the end of the day, the traditions you choose to keep and those you update will become a part of your very own family traditions. They have to start somewhere and without change there is no growth.  

This year, I'm not quite sure how I will mark my annual Seder tradition in the classic form, but I have faith that somehow I'll find a way to bring people together.

Chaya Milchtein
Chaya Milchtein writes about cars, culture and queer life. She empowers people to do the impossible and be authentically themselves. Follow her @mechanicfemme.
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