Unlikely Sources of “Customs” for Leading a Modern Life and Marking Sacred Time
by Krista Tippett, host
Scott-Martin Kosofsky is a designer of books, an author and editor, and an aficionado of early music. Like many postwar American Jews, he grew up “nonobservant but strongly Jewish identified,” surrounded by family members who had escaped Europe’s horrors. He grew up speaking the Yiddish of the life his parents had led before, but their generation had not yet found words to speak of the Holocaust that haunted the lives that came after.
Still, the Holocaust was real to him, and present. There was no comfort and no hope, he felt, that it would not recur. He realizes, looking back, that he took spiritual solace in the music he came to love, much of it Christian in origin. He worked on several Christian projects before he took on a Jewish one, the creation of the illustrated The Harvard Hillel Sabbath Songbook. And in searching in Jewish history, he chanced upon a handbook of illustrations and instructions that moved and surprised him. What he discovered was a “Customs Book” — a Minhogimbukh — helping ordinary medieval Jewish families navigate the complexities of ritual, prayer, and the seasons of a Jewish life.
For three hundred years, versions of this book of customs translated tradition into daily action and teaching into the vernacular. And then Judaism spawned several competing traditions. The Enlightenment made its mark on Jewish thought. The notion of a single compact guidebook to Jewish practice came to seem impossible, and the Minhogimbukh died out.
When Scott-Martin Kosofsky rediscovered a 1645 edition of the The Book of Customs in the late twentieth century, he did so neither as a rabbi or a scholar, nor as a passionately devout adherent of any strand of Judaism. For him, the different branches of Judaism seemed to have more in common than apart, so he set out to recreate an updated book of customs in English, for modern people. He delved into the structure of Jewish practice, the ancient stories behind its teachings, the rituals and symbols that had seemed dead to him for most of his life. He added historical detail and notes on contemporary application. Jewish life is really all about moments, he realized anew — moments that are set aside to honor God. To his own surprise, he found himself not only chronicling this sensibility but participating in its power.
Here is a passage from the introduction to his updated version of The Book of Customs, the passage that made me want to interview him:
“I did not go back to the traditional customs and liturgies expecting to find lost meaning, but there it was. Even more surprisingly, I found deep meaning in texts that had been dropped or modified by the liberal denominations: the prayers of supplication and confession, the tragic liturgies of the Tishah b’Av, and even the Avodah, the daily call for the restoration of the Temple and a return to the sacrifices of old. What can a post-Freudian person like me find in such things? I found these: a broad and intimate confrontation with myself and with God, a sense of community for better or for worse, an appreciation of God’s greatness, miracles, and ambiguities — all together, a clearer view of the moral and the immoral.”
This week’s episode isn’t strictly a Hanukkah show, but we released it this year as the season of Hanukkah is about to begin. And woven throughout our conversation is rich material for reflection on the meaning of this “minor” and sometimes misunderstood season of Jewish life — and its place in American culture. Hanukkah commemorates an ancient, triumphant Jewish revolt and restoration of the Temple after a period of occupation and desecration. At various times in history — such as at the founding of the state of Israel — this commemoration provided a potent symbol of Jewish identity and strength. In America, by contrast, the rise of Hanukkah was connected with the rise of the Christmas card. Like Christmas, it has become interwoven with cultural and consumer practices.
Still, while naming and holding the ambiguities of culture and religion in tension, Scott-Martin Kosofsky works to recover his own understanding of the meaning of Hanukkah and other rituals he had previously ignored as unmodern, incomprehensible. A palpable sense of the sacred lies behind his words and ideas. He does not convey certainty so much as mystery, but mystery as something you can almost touch and hold in your hand. For example, pondering the story of Hanukkah, Scott-Martin Kosofsky is left with haunting religious questions. He asks himself if God was still in that desecrated Temple — and why would he leave his House in the first place? He concludes that, if all we celebrate in such rituals is the “memory of God,” it is still very important to keep that memory alive.
About the image: Scott-Martin Kosofsky at work in what he calls his sukkah. (photo: Amanda Kowalski)
The New Year (for Trees)
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
As we’ve mentioned here before, one of the hardest parts of the production process can be deciding what to leave out. For me, sorting through over 70 ancient woodcut illustrations from Scott-Martin Kosofsky’s The Book of Customs for this slideshow was definitely an excercise in leaving things out.
Just as it was necessary to leave out many of the images, there was also wealth of information about the customs they depicted that needed to be pared down into succinct captions. One illustration that intrigued me more than the others was Tu b’Shevat, or “The New Year for Trees.” A New Year for Trees? I was intrigued, so I looked to see what The Book of Customs had to say about it:
This was the date on which the year was determined for tithing of fruit trees during Temple times. Since a tenth of the fruit was obligated to be given to the Levites and Temple each year, it was necessary to calculate from a measurable turning point in the growing season.
At first I was disappointed by this description — to me it sounded like celebrating tax day as a holiday. But as I read further, Tu b’Shevat revealed itself as a great testament to the ability for customs to take on a life of their own. It turns out that many traditions have been built around the holiday — from simply eating fruit to reciting passages in the Bible, Talmud, and Kabbalah related to fruit. More recently, Tu b’Shevat is interperated by many as a kind of Jewish Arbor Day — an occasion for celebrating the environment, planting trees, and raising ecological awareness.
The truth is that many of the customs shown in this slideshow followed a similar historical trajectory, becoming abstracted from their original purpose — and of course, Judaism doesn’t hold a monopoly on this sort of evolution. What kind of traditions have you observed that have expanded out from their origins — for New Years, for trees, or otherwise?