Yesterday was the first memorial for my mother. I lit the Jewish memorial candle for her the preceding night and it stayed lit for more than 24 hours. That’s the tradition.
Every time I hear that word I think of the song that introduces Fiddler On the Roof, the cast triumphantly proclaiming it to explain who they are and how they function: How do we keep our balance? Tevye asks, and answers: Tradition. He points out that the men cover their heads as a sign of devotion to God, then asks: How did this tradition start? And answers: I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition! Everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do. The cast then presents the men, who know where their duty lies, as do the women (all wives), as do the sons and the daughters.
It’s tempting to live that way.
I loved Fiddler On the Roof, but I hated tradition. It felt like a prison, with its rules and incantations, its definitions and prohibitions. As the song made clear, if you didn’t choose to live that way you were outside the pale, not just of the Jewish people but also the pale of normalcy, the pale of humanity.
Now in my 70s, I’m waiting to find more appreciation for tradition inside me, as I had been told would happen as I got older. It hasn’t; another maxim bites the dust. Not in Judaism, and not in Buddhism. I don’t dislike it, quite the contrary. When I’m in Israel I enjoy Shabbat lunches with my sister and brother-in-law. I love the yeast cakes made for Shabbat, I love how the streets quiet down. Back home, I enjoy our Zen liturgy and zendo protocols that came from Japan; I even appreciate the Japanese terms so many continue to use even as I encourage us to translate them into English.
But I have no nostalgia for tradition.
Looking back, I find myself feeling sorry for my parents. They were impoverished East European Jews who survived the Holocaust and came to the US, struggling to make a living and raise a family, with a daughter who seemed to question their reality almost as soon as she emerged from the womb. Who had questions about God and life and—yes, tradition—from the get-go.
They’d peer at their friends’ children who, even in the flamboyant Sixties, went to the right schools and chose the right careers, if not right away then after a slight delay during which they cavorted with their peers and demonstrated against the war in Vietnam, and then reached middle class and even upper middle class status, raising families of their own, all normal and never outside the pale. Even if they weren’t religious, they always appreciated the tribal tradition.
This is what my parents wanted from me—“Is it too much to ask?” they’d say plaintively—and I couldn’t give it to them. Dropped out of college, wanted to leave home (a no-no for an unmarried girl in my family). Years later, my mother would shake her head: “You were always like this,” she’d tell me. “Your brother, your sister, they were different [though each in their own way also rebelled]. You were the one who always wanted to go your own way, no one could talk any sense to you. Once you decided something, that was it.”
Throughout yesterday, in the midst of doing this and that, I’d pause in front of the altar, look at the photo of that pretty woman, and say: “My stubbornness, mom? That’s from you.”
In the last 20 years of her life, even as I clung to my stubbornness, she let go of hers and we lived in peace. But we’d both paid a price and that price was distance. I lived a rich life I hadn’t even dreamed of as a child, but there was a cost. There’s always a cost.
Every once in a while I’m struck by the many people who are riveted by the loss of parents. Facebook is replete with photos of parents who’ve gone, accompanied by posts of grief and loss that continue year after year. That isn’t the case for me. I don’t feel the sharp piercing I experienced when my husband died, as if the rip in my heart and body will never heal.
I wanted them to have a good life to the end—they both died in their 90s—and did whatever little I could do to help that from my end, across such long distances, including trips to see them and daily phone calls. For a number of years Bernie and I would take my mom for a weekend at the Dead Sea whenever we came to Jerusalem.
But they aren’t missing for me.
And what about the tradition they stood for? I still don’t miss it, though occasionally I look over my shoulder and check in. Do I miss Passover? The Jewish new year? The answer is always no, and then, stubborn me, asks herself: Why not? I repeat the frustrated question my parents voiced time and time again, like a cross-generational echo: How can someone be so divorced from her origins?
One voice says: Be careful, there’s something pathological here, you should examine it more closely. Another says: Because, like she said, you went your own way and never looked back, so don’t make a fuss about it now.
Don’t you want to belong?
Yes, to a sangha, to the Zen Peacemaker Order. Not to a synagogue.