Adapting and Assimilating: the brilliant photos of Judah Passow

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Last night I had the incredible pleasure of visiting an exhibit of photos by Judah Passow, featured in a photography exhibit at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. The exhibit, entitled Scots Jews, gave us a glimpse into the lives of the tiny Jewish population of Scotland. In fact, when my Scottish friend asked me to go to the exhibit, I said, “What? Did they photograph all three of them?” There are about 5500 Jews in Scotland. It’s a pretty small country, population 5,295,000 all in all, so this tiny group represents about 0.1%. About the same number as in a single block in Brooklyn…

What thrilled me the most were the pictures from Burns Night. Burns Nights in Scotland are these wild holidays where people follow a ritual, reading from Robert Burns’ poetry and drinking whisky. (Yes, in Scotland there’s no e in whisky!) So here the haggis, part of the ritual food, is “piped in” by bagpipers in grand ceremony. But the Burns Night is being held in the L’Chaim Restaurant, Glasgow, the only kosher restaurant in Scotland (per the exhibit) and the haggis itself is kosher!

Jews rarely have had a homeland. The population, spread through the world, can only maintain its religion and traditions through insulation. And yet, throughout history, Jews have adapted without assimilating–taken the foods and customs of the “host” nation and incorporating them, or using them when traditional foods were unavailable–while not giving up or losing their own identity, religion and customs.

Sometimes the “host” country returns the favor. In the US, where we have a large Jewish population and an unheard of level of freedom, bagels have certainly gone mainstream and everyone is invited to the Bar Mitzvah. But in times of fear and oppression, Jews who have hidden their identity have had to make do with what was on offer. The Crypto-Jews of Mexico, in the 1600s, used tortillas instead of matzo, and hot chocolate instead of wine, but the traditions and religion retained their secret existence for centuries.

Today’s Tablet Magazine featured a post with a Halloween candy-stuffed Challah for Friday, both Shabbat and Halloween. Some traditionalists were outraged. Me, not so much. How much of our culture is adapted, and not static? Do we freeze our traditions in Eastern Europe circa 1800? Weren’t plenty of those customs adapted to foods available in Germany or Poland?

Granted Halloween has deeply Christian origins, but anyone can put on a witch hat or a Ninja Turtles costume and go door to door for candy. Why not enjoy a little sweetness at home?  And pipe in that Kosher Haggis!

Impermanence, and the more things change

It’s not surprising, at the end of the High Holidays, that my thoughts turn to change. Return again, we sang, return to the land of your soul. So I mused last night as I picked the last of the tomatoes from my drought-stricken garden, sharp, intense tomatoes that had survived weekly waterings with water collected from the shower as it warmed up. We plant our gardens in the spring with the optimism that they will grow and thrive and that we will be here in the fall to harvest them. And so it was again for me this year. I am blessed.

I am entering the autumn of my life as I approach the milestone birthday of 60. I am still producing the sharp, intense, drought-farmed tomatoes of life, to slaughter a metaphor, and I am content. Autumn has a whiff of ending, of sorrow to it, but it also has the intensity of harvest and celebration. Nothing, no one is permanent, so today I am entering the harvest, the Sukkot (Succoth) festival time of my life with joy.

This past weekend, while I attended the wine-harvest festival of Amador Big Crush, my newest book, The Duel for Consuelo, sold over 1000 copies. Sure, it was on sale, and on #bookbub, but for any and every reason, it sold madly. It hit #1 on the paid Kindle Jewish American books (it’s about Mexico in 1711, but there is a Jewish theme) and #17 in the enormous category of Kindle Historical Romance (there’s a love story in there too.) Whatever the category, it was up on top. Now, as the rankings ease down, as they must now that the sale and bookbub are over, I feel a loss, an acknowledgment of impermanence. The book is still wonderful, and costs less than a latte…

But I must return to the harvest. Enjoy the bounty of last weekend. Feel the joy of the grand sale, and return to the quiet of my life. I have such blessings–seven books, a great job, a fabulous husband, two terrific kids, my sister, her boys, my house, my garden, and yes, the next book is writing itself. But I see an easing of ambition. I have achieved what I strove for. It’s time to celebrate my harvest, impermanent as it is. Impermanent as we all are.