Redefining Rituals and Traditions

*Photos are of my Bachans (grandmas).

*Photos are of my Bachans (grandmas).

Every since I can remember, I've felt the burden of being the last link to my heritage. This little voice in my head said, "If I don't continue my cultural traditions and rituals, they will be lost for future generations." Yet, being fourth generation Japanese-American and newly Jewish, this feels like a total set up. What are traditions and what are rituals? Do I even have any of my own? If I don't, how do I make my own? Are they still "real" and "authentic" if I'm making them up as I go along?

First of all, what is a tradition and what is a ritual? At Nourish, we define tradition as a behavior that happens in a continuing pattern. For example, my Mom has a tradition of making 30 pounds of mochi each year for Japanese New Year, which my Dad then delivers to family, friends and neighbors who may not otherwise have access to homemade mochi.  In our highly connected modern world, traditions can add a seasonality to our year. They can give us a reason to disconnect from technology for a bit and reconnect to our loved ones. Often, traditions are passed down from our ancestors to future generations.

Rituals are a set of actions that are performed in a particular sequence- these actions can take place as often as every day or as little as once. For example, before our wedding Bryan and I met with our rabbi to construct our wedding rituals. Often, rituals are associated with religious rites, but can also non-religious, like a morning routine. Having some rituals in place can help us feel supported by our communities and offer healing during challenging times. Rituals can also help us feel like we have some level of control when the world is moving at an increasingly fast pace.

When I first started thinking about this question, the problem was that I didn't really have any cultural traditions and rituals of my own. My Mom had been doing much of the heavy lifting for years, and I never really learned how she did them. So days, months, years flew by and I did nothing but carry around the burden of being the last link to my heritage. It wasn't until before we got married that I started thinking more seriously about this. Bryan and I were merging two distinct heritages and I was converting to Judaism. I worried that there wasn't enough space in me for the parts of me that were Japanese and the parts that were Jewish. I realized that if I didn't take on a more active role, my Japanese cultural traditions and rituals really might be lost for future generations. 

This is when I started to really doubt myself, my identity and my narrative. I was born and raised in Los Angeles and always felt like an outsider when I visited my mother's home country of Japan. Up until now, I have about a year of experience being Jewish. I felt like a total fraud. But here's what I learned: The root of the traditions and rituals from our heritages have so much wisdom. And We HAVE to make traditions our own if they are going to survive. Let me give you an example: Because of my unique narrative, I'm not likely to connect to the very powerful story of Passover if it's all in Hebrew and told over six hours before dinner is served. This year for Passover, I made a Japanese-inspired matzah ball soup and served saké with dinner. Our community of friends came over and we shared stories of immigration in our families. Everyone was so engaged and connected and I was in awe that thousands of years later, the Passover story is still relevant. The evening felt almost magical. 

Now that we've defined what traditions and rituals are and we've cleared a few things up (break the rules if it helps you connect), let's talk about the HOW. By no means am I an expert, but I have had a few years of practice and picked up a few tricks and tips along the way:

  1. Google (insert the culture of your heritage/s here) holidays 2017 and see what holidays you might like to try out this year. Dia de los Muertes? Eid? Obon? Find out if there there any celebrations going on in your city and schedule some time on your calendar to check them out. If you enjoyed it, make a reoccurring calendar reminder for the years to come.
  2. Birthdays are a great time to start a yearly tradition. When we first started dating, I made Bryan a giant chocolate cookie cake. I was inspired by those Mrs. Fields cookie cakes from the mall that I had at birthday parties growing up. I’ve made Bryan the same cookie cake recipe for the past five years. When so much of our world is changing so rapidly, it’s comforting to have anchors, even if they are in the form of chocolate cookie cake. Plus, I no longer spend any effort or time thinking about what kind of cake to get. 
  3. Feeling a nudge to connect to your heritage this week? Try an easy weeknight meal from that culture. If you like it, you can add to your weekly arsenal of delicious, nutritious, nourishing easy meals. Find a recipe you like and make it every few weeks. No time today? Go ahead, get some sushi/matzo ball soup/etc.
  4. What foods remind you of your ancestors or bring back fond memories with family? Are there particular traditions they do/did around the table? Write them down and try them out. When I was growing up my Mom made a big pot of chili on Halloween for all of us trick-or-treaters. Every year, I make a big pot of chili even if it’s not exactly on Halloween and we don’t have trick-or-treaters in our house yet.  
  5. Do you miss someone who is no longer here? Put their birthday on your calendar and share or remember a story about them. When I have something on my calendar, I usually see it a week or a couple of days ahead and just simply start thinking about that person. 
  6. Add one new tradition or ritual to your life every year. After a few years, you’ll have quite the rotation! The key is to take the time to discover what you really connect to. If you try something new and you don’t connect to it, think about how you can update it to be fun and meaningful for you.

Here's what I tell myself: “If you can just incorporate one new tradition or ritual into your life each year, it will be enough.” What I’ve found over the years is that some rituals have even become tools, support and anchors when I’m going through a particularly tough time. They make me feel close to those who are no longer here anymore. Many of them make me feel joyful and grateful. They’ve helped Bryan and I build community and meaningful relationships in our big city and nourish my soul, which helps me be the best sister, daughter, friend, wife and leader I can be, to all the people I love.