Saturday, April 16, 2011


Perhaps you have heard of or seen a film called "The Fiddler on the Roof?" I can't remember the last time I actually sat and watched the whole thing, as it is at times slower than the films I like to watch, and quite long. Plus, no dragons, lasers, robots, or superheroes. Anyway. It's a musical (and I do love musicals) with some rather delightful songs, and one who's title line has always stuck in my head is "Tradition!" It's the opening number of the film, split between Tevye (the milkman) speaking to the audience and explaining the importance of tradition to the people of his village, Anetevke, and the chorus of villagers explaining traditional roles. Their lives are shaky, uncertain (the film takes place in Russia during a time of great Jewish persecution), like the balance of a fiddler playing on a roof, and tradition helps them maintain balance in their lives. Everyone has a place, and knows just who they are and what's expected of them, thanks to tradition. They even have traditional feuds, like the time when *he* sold a horse to _him_ that was *he* told _him_ was 12 years old, when it was only 6.

It's powerful, this sense of tradition. And it remains powerful even in 21st century America. We have traditional holidays, traditional dress for men and women, traditional gatherings, traditional foods, and traditional feuds. When those traditions are broken or unable to be followed, it can be distressing. The first time I couldn't go to my parents home for Thanksgiving was a sad time, and when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, many, I suspect, were distressed at the idea that Mardi Gras might not be able to go forward. Thankfully, it did. I'm sure you yourself could think of many traditions that you would not wish to miss out on.

Yet, it is in large part because of tradition's power that we need to always be willing to examine our traditions, and to determine if those traditions we hold dear (or not so dear) are still worth keeping. To go back to the "Fiddler on the Roof," it was traditional for the Jews of Anetevke to have fathers choose who their children would marry, often when they were still quite young, yet as the movie progresses 3 of Tevye's daughters all seek to marry a man of their own choosing, each one seemingly worse than the last from a traditional perspective. Is that a tradition that should be maintained?

When considering a tradition, there are always going to be multiple things to consider: is it fun? is it beneficial? is it used to memorialize some event that should not be forgotten? is it necessary? in what way is it necessary? is there a better way? And most important, is it ethical? Choosing who your children will marry may have had benefits, such as ensuring that your children will in fact get married, and thus have social stability protected, the family line will continue, there may be financial considerations, political benefits (ending some of those traditional feuds), etc. But at the same time, it denies those individual children, who will some day be adults, the freedom of choice to choose who they will spend a lifetime with, having sex (effectively legitimizing rape of both the man and woman), raising children, interacting with day in, and day out. If the man does not like the wife who was chosen for him? Too bad. It's tradition. Can there be any doubt that when these things are taken into account, this tradition can only be called unethical? If the tradition is unethical, should it not be eliminated? Of course.

Not all traditions are good traditions. Some are downright harmful (female genital mutilation, for example), some are just boring as hell (sitting through multiple commencement speakers at graduation -- ok, that one might have a redeeming feature or two), some might have had a purpose at some point in time, but no longer have a purpose (I don't have any examples for that one, can anyone else think of one?). It's not always immediately obvious whether a tradition is a good tradition, and as such, all traditions must be open to critical  examination, and never defended solely on the basis of "But it's a tradition." If a tradition is found to be unethical, or harmful, it needs to eliminated, or modified to address those concerns. If it's simply boring, can we spice it up a bit? If it had a purpose once, but that purpose is no longer valid, is it worth keeping as a memorial, or because it's fun, or for any other good reason? If so, by all means hold on to it.

Christmas, for example. On the one hand, I'm an atheist, so clearly, I have no desire to celebrate the birth of Jesus, so you won't see any Nativity scenes in my home, I'm not likely to sing traditional, religiously themed carols, or go to Christmas church services. I worked in retail for a number of years, at the local mall, in a store geared toward children, so I'm quite familiar with the commercialization of Christmas. But, I like the get togethers of family that we traditionally engage in. There's a beautiful song by Tim Minchin, called "White Wine in the Sun," that captures my feeling exactly. So, original purpose? Gone, and was never really valid. Memorial? Nope. Fun? Oh yea, definitely. If you ever saw a gathering of my in-laws when the white wine's a-flowing (or even when it's not), you'd agree. And while there's no white wine flowing on my side of the family, there's still fun to be had. I have yet to find any ethical concerns with the tradition as we maintain it, but there's a sense of belonging and connection that I quite like. I think I'll keep this one.

"You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I'll tell you...I don't know. But it's a Tradition!" -Tevye, "Fiddler on the Roof"

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