05 August 2006

Where Do Some Traditions Come From...

And How Do We Get Rid of Them?

[From now until Rosh Hashanah, I intend to make many of my posts about how to use the time during Elul to make us stronger people and better Jews. If we work on one aspect, the other will grow as well.]

Stop me if you heard this one... When I was a child, I saw my mother making the brisket for the seder and noticed that she cut the tip off of it. I asked her why, she said, "I don't know. Your grandmother always did it this way." At the seder later on, she asked my grandmother why she always cut the tip off the brisket. Grandma's response was, "I don't know. My mother always did it this way." If my great-grandmother had not already been in shamayim, she might have said, "Because my Pesadik pot was too small for the brisket, so I made it fit." (Yeah, I know, it's a classic, but will illustrate my point.)

Esther brought up in her blog recently how one may come about some of their minhagim. If not fully understood, it could blow up into entire chumras when its' origin came about as something practical, like cutting the tip off the meat. [In this case, her husband's towels covering the pots on Shabbat. We ended up joking about the thickness of the towels or even the color, white of course. If you use the wrong color, you could effect the chances of your children making good shiddukhim.]

One of the first major differences cool yiddish papa and I had to overcome involved the matter of housekeeping. While neither of our mothers could honestly be called balebustas, the approach that was taken with this in each of our childhood homes was different. My father hated messes and made it a point to make sure the house was not a mess at anytime. Mom, on the other hand, could not have cared less. In my house, things had to be put away IN THEIR PLACE when we were done using it. If we neglected to do so, we ran the risk of losing it forever.

This contrasted significantly with cool yiddish papa's parents. His father didn't seem to mind if the house was untidy and only when company was coming would his mother flurry around, stuffing things into drawers. So when we got married, I was shocked when cool yiddish papa offered to help me clean before Shabbat one week...until two days later, I tried to open a drawer which was crammed full of stuff.

I will tell you that we have struck a happy compromise with our house. He gets one drawer per room to stuff things into, but the rest have to have a definite purpose. That, I would say, was a easier resolution than some in my parents' marriage. After it ended, my mother has since become a major pack-rat and I believe that she is asserting her independence in the gesture of accumulating so much stuff.

As part of a recommendation to bring closure on some issues involving my father, a'h, someone suggested that I do some reflection on "family traditions", in a more universal sense than what food is served at each chag (a common argument with my in-laws since my mother's family are yekkish and my husband's family are litvish). Many families have problems that are "traditions", such as substance abuse, phyiscal/emotional abuse, or psychological issues. It is, in fact, more common to have a dysfunctional family of some sort than it is to not have one.

A "mesorah" which has not been properly passed down from many a father to his son is how to handle marriage, not the physical part but rather, being a good husband. Many of us have our parents as our best role models for how to be in a marriage. We are the ones responsible for seeing what we like and didn't and trying hard to have our own marriages be different (in whatever way) from that of our parents.

The first personal struggle cool yiddish papa and I had, after the drawer stuff, was how to handle personal space and independence from each other. I wanted it and he didn't. My father was an extreme of this type as well. He wanted the space for himself but not my mother. He kept track of all her friends and tried to curtail her social events that did not involve him. When some of my mother's friends would call the house for her, Dad made sure to not give their messages. [I wonder if this were happening today would he also go into her e-mail or check her cell phone messages.]

Eventually, she started to add it up when some people she genuinely liked (but Dad didn't) weren't calling her anymore. She was able to talk to them and discovered that my father, for whatever reason, wanted to isolate her from the "outside" world. It started to seem like she could only talk to "pre-approved" friends (one of whom eventually became his paramour, but that's another story) and my grandmother, who he apparently adored.

We discovered later on that my father was doing all of this to gain "control" that he felt he was continually losing in any situation. My father was someone who struggled with substance abuse, depression, and a weight problem for most of his adult life. The fight was finally lost to cancer when he was 59. He honestly felt that if he could "control" the people close to him in life, then they would be around to help him through. However, if he wanted the space, we all had to give it to him.

My mother's favorite story was about how Dad "kept" her from going to a PTA with pleas it takes too much time away from the family after she had been at work all day. Mom, always the martyr in the marriage, gave up her plans. How did they spend this "romantic" evening? Dad sat and watched TV, barely speaking to her. He didn't even notice when she went to bed. (This, I found out, was a frequent game played by my in-laws.)

My husband has tried a similar argument since I started going to grad school at night. After a long talk, he realized that I need my space in order to be a better wife and mother. His mother may have not minded staying home most nights and my mother may have been too weak-willed to stand up to my father, but that will not be me. I am working harder at coming to understandings in my own marriage. Cool yiddish papa's mother was just comfortable with status quo and my mother was too afraid that shaking things up would take Dad over the edge. We are finding the best ways for us to define our relationship to each other.

I am suggesting that each of us find a "mesorah" in our own lives, that just doesn't quite make sense anymore. It could be due to the fact that your children just can't handle the time frame or even your nerves. Look into yourself and see how you can "improve" on it, so it will eventually make you a better person.
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