Last Updated: April 8th, 2019

The inheritances we carry

Just like any mother, I didn’t want to make any mistakes—minor or crippling. So when it came down to the big and small decisions as my children grew, I examined my own childhood to weed out the unwanted inheritances.

While I had an unremarkable childhood, pleasantly healthy and largely uneventful (a good thing), there were certain cultural and familial practices I refused to pass on to my own children. For instance, I swore I would not mislead or misinform my children. Even as babies, I afforded them the respect of capability, something I wish I was given more. I rarely spoke in those higher registers and never baby-talked. In my own early years, I wish I had been mollified less and respected more. I had a great need to be seen, not for attention (though that too probably) as much as for recognition of what I was capable.

I bristled at statements like, “Oh you’ll understand when you’re older” to my exasperation at illogical or unfair reasons or causes, for example, why my father was allowed to take my mother for granted and act ungratefully even while she served him hand and foot. She was right. I would not understand then the subtleties of relationships, but I wanted someone to try me nevertheless, to see if I could grasp complexities. I wanted honesty and direct explanation. Still do.

So when it came to decisions my husband and I made about imaginary beings like the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, I was adamant that we not build a relationship of lies at the outset, foster mistrust once my daughters discovered the truth (or falsity) of those made-up stores. I did give in, however, to the argument that kids thrive on fun, and these fantasies were fun. I ended up raising them with fairies and Christmas, but I also explained to my now mostly adult children what I wanted for them and the reasons for our decision to build their reality in the way we did.

So much in childhood goes unexplained, and we blindly carry pieces of childhood with us, never examining them, never even looking at them, just wearing them like skin. Memories, information, habits and beliefs are often carried without notice.

The right to choose (or not choose) religion

One decision my husband and I agreed upon was the one about religion. We chose to defer religious teaching until a time the children grew old enough to choose. Of course, I answered their questions and told them everything I knew about many religions. Growing up in suburban Southern California, they were exposed to other kids going to church, synagogue or mosque. And so they asked about the stories and beliefs associated with these places. However, since religion is inherited for most of us, I didn’t single out one practice as ours. My children have since thanked me for giving them the option to decide for themselves.

I was raised Jewish, a culture more than a religion. Seder songs and Chanukah rituals patterned my days and years, just as a sliver of them patterned my own children’s life. While I didn’t pass down ritual, I did my part for the economy by participating in the gift-giving commercial holidays representing our combined pasts (my husband grew up Catholic) like Chanukah with its alluring candle-lit solemnity and awe, and Christmas with its bright celebratory colours and goodwill. My daughters knew when the getting was going to be good, counting the days to a secular sumptuous feast.

One ritual song I passed down from my own childhood along with candle-lit menorahs, Chanukah gifts and chicken soup, was Dayenu, the Passover song. Passover was not a fun holiday when I was growing up, not until after the ceremony that required young children to sit for far too long at a table where unintelligible words and actions played out, mystifying and boring. That is, until the singing of Dayenu, a catchy tune that signaled eating; finding the afikomen (hidden matzo piece) and then running off with cousins to play. Like the ceremony itself, much of the meaning of the songs and activities were lost on me, having been thrust upon me mindlessly.

The meaning of Dayenu

Forty-five some odd years later, sitting at a bar, I learned the meaning of this Hebrew word, Dayenu. Not that I was curious and looked it up out of the blue. No, it happened by chance. Last Valentine’s Day, I enjoyed my dinner sitting on a stool at a local bar around the corner. I had a long day working and craved a beer and a bite to eat. So, while in the throes of feel-good satiety (seafood soup and roasted artichoke) and a slight buzz, I looked to the words written over the entry of the seaside establishment, which read,  “If you are lucky enough to drink wine by the sea, you are lucky enough.”

I raised my glass to the written words, and did what anyone would do: I posted on Facebook a customized version of it to fit my current circumstances—drinking an IPA: “Drinking an IPA by the sea. It is enough.” The next morning’s comment from a friend was “dayenu.” After lamely asking if the word was the name of a beer as well as a song, I googled the word before receiving a response only to find the word means something like, “It would have been enough” or sometimes, “It is enough.”

Who knew? I obviously didn’t. While this may be a case of synchronicity, kismet or coincidence (though no major planetary alignment), it should remind and caution all of us of an interesting psychological and cultural phenomenon: we are products of much we do not understand or even think about.

And this I have often maintained is how racists and bigots form most often: through mindless heredity, unthinking though powerfully instilled. This is also how a culture perpetuates—passively ingested, unheard and undetected. We do not know why we know what we know or do what we do, unless we make the effort to understand, observe and mind. How else do we make changes local and global?

Politics and Dayenu: Choose wisely

It’s obvious from the wacky state of U.S. politics this election season that Americans hunger for drastic change and reject the mindless status quo business as usual, regardless of the wisdom or catalyst of that change: political bigotry-baiting, at one extreme, or rainbow-coloured rebellion, at the other, if you believe campaign rhetoric and vitriol. The typecasting and name-calling—conservative fascist or tree-hugging liberal or liars and crooks—are more vicious than ever, even for an election season. The social media banter, hate and battles abound in un-friending, blocking and blasting incidents, all reading like a script of radioactive reactive polarization. The common thread is dissatisfaction with congressional stalemates, dishonest politicians and broken presidential promises.

And yet this hunger for change is good. Feeding automatic feel-good responses, age-old prejudices and knee-jerk reactions dredged in a rotten history of exclusion, bigotry and fear-mongering is not. We—all of us—must examine where our frustrations and reactions derive. Are they mere mimicry? inborn? calculated? truth? Riotous urges to shout and defy are necessary sometimes but not without conviction derived from critical examination—not without mindfulness. Otherwise, we behave unthinkingly, no differently than primates or automatons.

It’s not enough to beat our chests or beat others in rage and frustration to participate in a democratic political process that requires our ideas and convictions, not merely our blind, thoughtless actions and unquestioned, inherited notions. Being vigorously and mindfully curious and consciously dissatisfied, now that is enough.

Image: Passover background with matzo, wine and old seder plate via Shutterstock