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!

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