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The Customs of Our Ancestors

Rokhl’s Golden City: Traditions don’t have to bear the weight of official law to become entrenched communal norms

Rokhl Kafrissen
October 16, 2020
Original photo: Flickr Commons
Original photo: Flickr Commons
Original photo: Flickr Commons
Original photo: Flickr Commons

The coronavirus pandemic has shown how quickly our everyday routines—indeed, our entire lives—can be turned upside down. But it also showed that when the communal need for ritual is strong enough, new customs can appear quickly, and take hold immediately, even if for just a few months.

Take for example the 7 p.m. clap for essential workers. It started in mid-March in Europe. In England, it was a weekly show of support for health care workers. But when it arrived in New York in late March, the 7 p.m. clap quickly became a nightly event, certainly in my neighborhood, and many others across the city.

I was of two minds about the 7 p.m. clap. As an awkward non-joiner, I felt uncomfortable adding my voice to the crowd. Who exactly were we clapping for? Was it for essential workers or for our own sanity? And wouldn’t it be better to give them raises and proper protection instead of applause?

And yet, as we moved through the extremely grim spring of 2020, I started looking forward to the evening clap. In lockdown, time went saggy around the ankles, losing its orderly shape and tone. Due to no special merits of its own, 7 p.m. became a moment of communal resistance, and catharsis. It was something you could count on, even when everything else had gone to hell.

As any parent can tell you, children thrive on routine. Knowing what to expect creates a sense of safety. Kids may not have control over much, but routine at least gives them some purchase on the rhythms of daily life. And it creates a feeling of belonging, in both place and time. Adults tend to think routines are boring, or at least extremely unsexy, but too much novelty can be toxic to both body and mind (as witnessed by the upheaval of this spring). The psychologist Robert Thayer believed that rather than being unpredictable visitors, descending on us from outside, our moods are in large part a product of our own habits and coping patterns. We might not be able to control a global pandemic, but we can be aware of our habitual responses and whether they make us feel better or worse.

For the philosopher John Dewey, habit was central to the human experience. Dewey believed habits are not just shared within a wider social context, but across time, too: “We often fancy that institutions, social custom, collective habit, have been formed by the consolidation of individual habits. In the main this supposition is false to fact. To a considerable extent customs, or wide-spread uniformities of habit, exist because individuals face the same situation and react in like fashion. But to a larger extent customs persist because individuals form their personal habits under conditions set by prior customs.” If the past lives within us, it is in large part expressed through the habits we have inherited. It’s an idea that is in tension with American individualism, but very much at home in traditional Jewish life.

You don’t have to go any further than Twitter to see this illustrated. Recently some of the more elaborate Yiddish curses were making the rounds, for reasons I won’t bother to mention. As a Yiddishist, I feel a certain expectation to expound on these somewhat ridiculous curses, none of which I’ve ever heard or read in real life. But I did see one that satisfied both the humorless Yiddishist as well as the petty human inside me: a nomen nokh im (a name after him). It is sufficient to simply wish the cursee have a child named after him, something that every Ashkenazi Jew understands as a wish to see that person dead.

More than a superstition, not naming children after living people is a minheg, a deeply entrenched custom of Ashkenazi Jews, one approaching the weight of law. The custom is rooted in the idea that the Angel of Death might confuse the child and adult with the same name and that the child might unfairly receive the adult’s fate.

I dare say that even among those Ashkenazi Jews who keep very little of Jewish law or tradition, the custom forbidding naming after living relatives is one that is observed most stringently. Not that I would ever do it myself, but if I did choose to name a hypothetical child after myself, despite the full force of tradition being against it, there would be no penalty to pay, other than perhaps some odd looks here and there. After all, what is considered practically Halokhe (law) by Ashkenazi Jews has no bearing in other Jewish cultures, such as Sefardi and Mizrahi. Such is the curious nature of minheg, something that speaks to the power of custom, habit, and the weight of the past.

If you look at the historical development of minhagim in what is now Germany, for example, you often find that the needs of the folk often overcame the strenuous, and even Halachically based, objections of the rabbis. The tradition of going in costume on Purim started in Germany in the 16th century. Specifically, this meant men wearing women’s clothing and vice versa, in clear violation of biblical prohibition. When it started, the rabbis were of mixed opinion. Some said it was OK if it was just for Purim, some objected on various grounds. Rabbis and other authorities also objected to Purim shpiln, Purim plays, fearing their negative moral influence. But the emotional release offered by various Purim minhagim was far too strong, and too resonant among the folk. The rabbis eventually had to tolerate their presence as accepted, and perhaps even honored, customs of the community.

The rhythm of so much of contemporary Jewish life is built on minhagim, that which is not commanded by the Torah or the rabbis, but by the people: tashlich and Purim costumes, and bar mitzvah ceremonies and so much more. But there is another kind of minheg, one instituted by the rabbis and carrying equal weight of a law. The quintessential rabbinic minheg is keeping the second day of yontev (holiday). What was once necessitated by unreliable calendars was retained even after the advent of accurate time keeping, becoming obligatory. This kind of minheg has its own saying, too: minig avoseykhem bideykhem (this is the custom of your ancestors [so deal with it and make sure you have enough days off]).

In his excellent book The Jewish Cultural Tapestry: International Jewish Folk Traditions, Steven Lowenstein notes that the saying minhag yisrael kedin hu (a custom taken up by the people Israel is law) exists in both Yiddish and Hebrew: “The force of these sayings is to strengthen local custom and make it authoritative. A person brought up with one custom must continue to adhere to that practice; a community must continue its custom rather than adopt the ritual of another place; and within a community there should be a single liturgy and agreed-upon practices.”

The problem is, in 2020, mobility and migration are the rule, not the exception, and the majority of American Jews, including myself, are not brought up in Jewish communities with clear and comprehensive ways of doing Jewish. Here we’re talking about more than minheg; this is shteyger or lebn-shteyger (Yiddish for comprehensive cultural pattern). In Yiddish we say, vi der shteyger iz for “as is customary.” Shteyger also refers to the scales or harmonic modes that constitute the building blocks of Ashkenazi music. Within the synagogue, nusakh refers to both the form and substance of a prayer service, as well as the musical tunes used. The association of former residents of Vilne in New York is called Nusakh Vilne, indicating the unique totality of the way Jewish life was conducted in that city.

If I find myself unmoored from the vast symphony of Jewish tradition, I think about how I’m hardly alone. The reason we know many of these historical customs is because they were written down in minhagim books, often by people who had witnessed life-shattering catastrophes, and feared that their particular way of doing Jewish might be lost otherwise.

One of these books is the Sefer Minhagim, from the late 14th or early 15th century. It was originally written in Hebrew by a rabbi named Isaac Tyrnau and eventually translated into Yiddish (1590) and published to great success as Minhogimbukh (Minheg Book.)A few years ago, Scott-Martin Kosofsky brought out an excellent translation of the Minhogimbukh. In the introduction, Kosofsky says that the book “was written in the aftermath of the Black Death (1348–1350) in the belief that there was a kind of symbolic equivalence between a people and its customs. By preserving its customs, even if only in writing, the community would survive the pestilence, expulsions, harsh laws, and persecution that characterized Jewish life of the period.”

This was the same period in which Joseph Caro brought out his landmark codification of Jewish law, the Shulhan Orekh. However, the Shulhan Orekh was not accepted by Ashkenazi communities right away because it did not include Ashkenazi minhagim. It wasn’t until Moses Isserles (the ReMA) brought out his 1565 commentary on the Shulhan Orekh, and included Ashkenazi minhagim within its text, that Ashkenazi and Sefardic Jews could agree on what is now one of the most important texts for Jews all over the world.

There are innumerable customs that have arisen throughout Jewish history, some of which came and went, and many of which continue in some form to the present day. What I find equally fascinating is how a pseudo-minheg can arise, even today, specifically among those who perhaps feel the least tethered to communal obligation—that is, the curious belief that having a tattoo will prevent a Jew from receiving a Jewish burial. Tattoos are indeed prohibited by the Bible, but so are a lot of things. No one ever warned me that eating bacon would keep me out of a kosher cemetery. Perhaps the belief that tattoos made you uniquely treyf can be traced back to a Lenny Bruce bit from the early 1960s. In the joke, his aunt warns him about the tattoo taboo. But surely if Bruce’s aunt did actually tell him, then it came from somewhere else?

Even with the power of the internet making all knowledge available at once, the belief in this pseudo-minheg remains strong enough to figure in an episode of Broad City. But why? I don’t think it’s necessarily keeping anyone from actually getting a tattoo. But I do think there is something powerful in the belief itself. Getting a tattoo is more than an act of body modification, it becomes a relational act, even in the negative. It heightens one’s awareness of belonging to the Jewish community, quite permanently. And it may connect to our anxieties of present-day rejection by the community, even if that anxiety is projected out to the distant day of one’s own death.

If you look at some of the historical minhagim that have come and gone (often related to excuses for a banging party), the tattoo taboo is hardly the worst to come along. It may even contain within it that same spark of custom creativity, a spark that has illuminated so many of the unpredictable turns of Jewish history.

READ: The Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook for the Jewish Year by Scott-Martin Kosofsky. Reproduction of a 1545 Minhogimbukh or Customs Book with original historical illustrations. ... The best introduction to the variety of local Jewish traditions is Steven Lowenstein’s terrific The Jewish Cultural Tapestry: International Jewish Folk Traditions.

BROWSE: Among his many projects, Yiddish scholar Dovid Katz has been building an online resource called the Yiddish Cultural Dictionary. You can search words in English or Yiddish for Yiddish definitions, as well as guidance on dialect variations and more in-depth explanations of cultural concepts. It’s a work in process and the site may take a while to load, but if you read Yiddish, it’s fascinating to browse what’s there so far

VISIT (LATER): After spending so much time reading about the customs of German Jews, especially in Worms, I was immediately intrigued to learn that the Jewish Museum in Worms has just unveiled a new core exhibit called “ShUM on the Rhine: From the Middle Ages to Modernity.” The exhibit focuses on the cities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz. I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, but as the exhibit is permanent, it will still be there when we’re all ready to dive back in to heritage tourism.

ALSO: This fall the Workers Circle is hosting a new series of events for kids and families called Kinder Klub … The website is finally up for the new Klezmer Institute. The institute was established to “advance the study, preservation, and performance of Ashkenazic Jewish expressive culture through research, teaching, publishing and programming.” … Back in March, I wrote about Natan Meir’s then upcoming book, Stepchildren of the Shtetl. The book is finally out and he’ll be doing a program for the New York Public Library on Oct. 22. Tickets here … One of my absolute favorite ensembles is Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All Stars. The band will be appearing with Eleanor Reissa (vocals) and Deep Singh (percussion) on Oct. 25, live from the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Get your virtual ticket here … In October and November YAAANA is holding a series of Yidish fun breyshis (Yiddish from the absolute beginning) classes for folks who want to learn the Yiddish alphabet … On Nov. 10, my friend Miriam Udel will be giving the Annual Naomi Prawer Kadar lecture, “The Storm Within: Yiddish Children’s Literature and the ‘Invention Of Childhood.’” Tickets here.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.