May 20, 2024
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Does Nostalgia Influence Jewish Tradition, or Vice Versa?

On Simchat Torah, I was at shul dancing with the congregation. Parents, grandparents, teenagers and children were all present. As we were moving around, I noticed an 8-year-old boy dancing with his father in the circle.

Then the thought occurred to me: “This kid is going to remember this experience and do the same dances his father is teaching him right now later in life.”

A lightbulb soon went off in my head (halachically metaphorical, of course). This dance might have originated from his great-great-grandparents when they and their children went to shul for Simchat Torah as well. It is a passed down tradition from one generation to the next since its origins.

I thought that was cool. So cool in fact that I have not thought about it in almost nine months. But that all changes … today!

I got an opportunity to author an article for The Jewish Link. I thought long and hard about what I wanted my first article to be about. It went something like this:

jewishlinkwhatcaniaddumnotlotsofpopcultnoimnotqualiwaitnewstuffthaoldumnostnostalgiajewishlinklifejewishnota

Then it hit me.

Does that father have memories associated with this tradition? Are Jewish traditions nostalgic? Why do we fondly remember the traditions?

“Wow, that’s an excellent question!” I hear you thinking. (And if you weren’t, you are right now.) “How are you going to answer such a complex inquiry in a concise and simple format?”

Well first, we got to go over the basics.

What is nostalgia?

Nostalgia is an emotion we all experience. It is feelings like comfort and belonging, to the extent that we know something is familiar and we find warmth in it. It helps us identify who we are, especially during times of transition, be it teenagers taking steps towards their future and looking back at simpler childhood memories, or parents dealing with their newfound responsibilities and wishing to be young again. These moments of realized change can come from a reminder of who we might have once been.

“We’re not anywhere near the same as we were.” said Krystine Batcho, PhD, professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York during an interview with Speaking of Psychology. “Nostalgia, by motivating us to remember the past in our own life, helps to unite us to that authentic self and remind us of who we have been and then compare that to who we feel we are today,” It could be said that Jewish traditions are reminders of our Jewish heritage, be it from the foods we cook for chagim, the tunes we use for zemirot, the lessons we learn from the Torah, and literally anything with a history.

A large part of tradition is making sure that we continue to keep the past alive, so that we do not become overcome by the world around us. This has been a prominent theme in the Torah. Since Hashem commanded the brit milah to Avraham, we have had a continuous ebb and flow relationship with the world around us. Whether it be the threats to convert or leave during the Spanish Inquisition, the hate crimes of antisemitism throughout history, or the struggles to keep kosher in unfriendly environments, finding ways to remind us of who we are by practicing tradition has always anchored us to our beliefs and communities.

But there is another aspect that might, at first, seem to be based on nostalgia, although it could not be further from the truth. And that would be how we react to change in our own communities’ status quo. An internal evolution instead of an external one.

What do I mean by that? Well, first we talked about how our traditions give us a place to come back to when the world around us is threatening our fundamentals. We cannot let everyone else influence us away from the Torah. It is our duty as Hashem’s Chosen People to be firmly rooted in tradition.

So, what happens when there is a change inside our community? How do we react within this area of comfort and protection?

For example, the members of a community can fall into a routine on Shabbat, more like a rut. Parents who worked during the week spend Shabbat talking with their friends. Without school or electronics, kids also need to find ways to entertain themselves, usually by hanging out with friends. Shul itself becomes a constant cycle of davening, Torah reading and kiddush. Like shampoo instructions: wash, rinse, repeat.

This could lead to things outside this routine becoming alien to us and subsequently, ignored. We are too busy doing what we have always done, that, at times when people who do not have feelings of safety and comfort, but of loneliness and isolation.

The Torah is full of aphorisms on taking care of the stranger. The community is realistically open only to the extent that new people can fit into the already existing status quo. A community that lacks initiative and instead has expectations that are ignorant of the needs outside itself does not represent the ideals of the Torah that we as a community so potently present to our children and the world.

Of course, every community is different, but that does not mean we should stay in our bubble and expect everything to work out. If we want to have a community that is truly welcoming, there needs to be active observance and inclusion of those who are not as comfortable as we are.

This is how Jewish tradition inherently subverts this downside of nostalgia. While the good memories support us as we pass down tradition, we find ways to go beyond the path we have created and look out for others who are looking for their own community—and help them gain a little from ours. To help them gain a feeling past nostalgia. Feelings of true belonging. Not just based on the memories of the past, but of the traditions we hold dear forever.

And I think that’s pretty neat.


Judah Belgrade is a rising senior at the Torah Academy of Bergen County. He is an avid reader and writer of fiction, and spends most of his time trying to balance playing through his backlog of video games with literally everything else. However, at this exact moment, he is writing this short author bio, so he’s doing a pretty bad job at that ‘balancing’ mentioned earlier. Oh well.

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