I am fascinated by origin stories and why these myths and narratives matter. Many of us hold tightly to stories about where our families come from, or where our roots and origins lie, just as we recount stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs whose actions helped determine how our families came to be.
Recently, a dinner companion dismissed the idea that there were Ten Lost Tribes of Israel who were deported after the destruction of the First Temple.
I found myself quite defensive.
“Of course there were tribes that travelled far and were ‘lost’. This is why there are ancient communities of Jews in China and India and sub-Saharan Africa! This is part of why we talk about Diaspora!”
But I was clinging to straws. I realized my sense of what was real was, in some part at least, myth. And my interest in how those communities came to be so wildly dispersed masked a more keen interest in how they came to survive at all.
I have had the privilege of helping a friend and colleague create a dance-theatre piece entitled “UKnadian” about her British grandmother and her Ukrainian grandmother. “UKnadian” features Amelia Griffin as the solo performer dancing to her own original choreography, and Amelia’s mother’s poetry about the grandmothers serves as the spine of the story and most of the spoken text. We chose to highlight braiding as a key theme, theatrical image, and structural device. The piece refers to the braiding of hair, the braiding of dough for bread and the braiding of different strands of story, culture and people that make up a family. “UKnadian” is about mothers, daughters, grandmothers, and granddaughters. During the talkback following the performance, spectators noted that mothers often are the keepers and teachers of culture in a society, and that this piece expressed that fact.
But what happens when we ourselves are not parents? Although we have all been children, not all of us will become parents. What then becomes our role in a cultural community? What do we do if we do not have children to whom we can pass along our traditions? If we are not parents, how do we as Jewish adults fulfil the mitzvah of procreation and rearing children? In what other ways can we model, share, work to protect our culture, and help it to thrive?
No matter our particular ethnic or racial origin, as Jews, we belong to a religion and culture that values family, and very much values education. Many of our holidays and festivals are ingrained with teaching opportunities. Take, for example, the core of what happens at Chanukah and Passover: we recount the struggle and victory of the Maccabees and we recount the Exodus from Egypt. Our communities also seem to value Jewish education, and Ottawa families seek out Jewish educational opportunities for their children, ranging from bar mitzvah prep to Shabbat Camp to supplementary school to day school.
Since that dinner conversation, I have had to admit I look to the mythology of the Ten Lost Tribes as an example of resilience. No matter their origins or whether DNA will ever prove genetic links to ancient Israelites, I am curious about how tiny minority communities managed to practise Jewish customs and live Jewish lives in Nigeria, South Africa, India, the rugged hills of the Pashtun region of Afghanistan, Burma and even Japan. It’s not genetic proof that fascinates me, but rather the power of resilience.
Despite this isolation, oppression and cultural marginalization by majority cultures, Jewish communities have not only survived, but also thrived all over the world in minority situations. Healthy demographics are not the only markers of a community’s health; so too are markers of cultural health such as community pride, cultural literacy and religious knowledge. A healthy culture is also a sign of healthy Jewish continuity. In those minority communities of the lost tribes, who held up the culture for the children? Who made sure it was valued and protected? Who encouraged it to evolve when necessary? Who taught the children what mattered most? There is a teaching in the Talmud that states that, if one teaches a child, it is as if that person has given birth to the child.
I wonder how healthy our own local community is, and how healthy it could be. If each of us took up the mantle of cultural keeper, whether we are parents or not, and took up the role of teacher, how strong and resilient could our children be? Who among us could be found?