A Case for Not Preserving Culture

I’ve always thought of preserving culture as a good thing. Now, I’m not sure.

In the face of strong influences from the West, I’m not certain we should be preserving other cultures.

You must be thinking, where is she going with this and why, of all places, is it being featured at the ASF Institute of Jewish Experience?

Allow me to explain.

I don’t think the term “preservation” is what we’re looking for. I’m not sure the concept is an effective means for our purpose. Quite frankly, I don’t think preservation is powerful enough.

Michael Gavin, Associate Professor at Colorado State University, stated quite poignantly at TEDxCSU, “Culture is not static. It’s not something we can take and just put in a museum. Culture belongs to people. Culture is dynamic and changing.”

And preservation? Well, it alludes to a museum-like setting. We preserve in order to make something last. We gather the information or the pieces of the item, we fix its aesthetics, we set the temperature, the lighting, adjust the setting and make sure it survives the passing years.

You know what worries me about that approach? That it will actually have the opposite effect. It won’t last. The further we keep it from real-life settings, the more we push it into a category that is disconnected from the outside world, the more likely it is to be forgotten and lost.

I believe a solution is to live culture. If we bring it into the here and now and make it part of contemporary reality, then it will last.

Indian style henna design
© Noam Sienna

Recently, Israel’s version of the Australian show “You Can’t Ask That” featured a segment on Ethiopian Jews. They answered questions on how they got to Israel (walking, flight, boat, etc.), inquiries into discrimination, and, of course, about maintaining the culture. Many suggested they were both forced and voluntarily stripped of their culture in an effort to “fit in.”

There was a particular young participant for whom the realization that she was living her culture came about as she was answering the question. “We’re a very modern household. We still have the injera (sourdough-risen flatbread) of course but it’s… it’s a custom. I’m talking about rituals. Right, there’s also the buna (coffee-making ceremony), right… We have that incense that we always burn. Ok, we have a lot of rituals…. Wow I didn’t realize there was so much about the way we lived that is Ethiopian. That’s so nice.”

Her family wasn’t preserving their culture because if they were, I’d think she would be acutely aware of it. She’d realize how she was adjusting, or momentarily abandoning, her Western lifestyle in order to insert scheduled cultural rituals. She’d metaphorically adjust the lighting and set the temperature in order to make the Ethiopian part have a place in her reality’s figurative museum. But that isn’t the case with her. This young woman realized she unconsciously has the culture as part of her reality without having to find a special place for it. She lives it.

Which is how I think this culture, or any culture, can last. Even in the face of the force that is Western influence.

What oftentimes happens when we try to preserve culture is that it feels fake. Like an imitation.

These words stung in a recent event I attended. We were having a discussion about henna pre-wedding parties and were asked for first associations with the concept.

Imitation.

“It’s not a bad thing,” the participant who suggested the word insisted.

But how many of us give positive connotations to that word?

Maybe what he was referring to was this sense of preserving culture. We do the research on what a henna party should look like, we walk through the symbolic steps… and what we get is an imitation. Its meaning is not always known to all participants. It has become a fantastical event that many dream to be invited to if just to see what it’s all about. Sometimes not even those who come from that culture have been to one, let alone know its meaning.

In defense of modern henna parties, or maybe in an attempt to expand the thought process, one of the participants jumps in, “We tend to idealize or romanticize the way things were in the countries from which certain customs come.” The culture in its former setting is thought to be at its best. Its romanticized as being perfect and the ideal of a culture that suits its people.

Henna celebration in Morocco
© Joan Roth

When we try to preserve culture, we view it in a certain backdrop. “Back in Morocco/Yemen/India/etc. they did it this way….” The original is always better. Especially when you’re looking at an imitation.

But what if we don’t preserve culture? What if we live it.

We look for its place in our everyday lives and how its former richness applies to our current environment. On a superficial level, rather than wear the Yemenite earrings solely during a henna celebration, we’d wear it throughout the year. On a deeper level, we’d understand the significance of the henna party and find its meaning in the soon-to-be-wed couple’s experience.

The event that hosted this henna conversation was specifically relevant to living culture. The event was run by Yeshiva Mizrahit, a group that meets to study and experience Jewish-related topics in the context of Sephardi-Mizrahi thought. A group aimed not to preserve the culture, but rather to live it. These texts and thought processes are not bound to a specific time or place but rather are, or should be, a part of our current reality.

What proves their approach the most is the type of people that are attracted to Yeshiva Mizrahit and who have become avid followers. Almost all, but not only, were 20-40-year-olds. They were engaged, came voluntarily and left wanting more. It wasn’t a one-time event like a museum visit. It is something they’re looking to be part of their everyday lives. It’s a culture they want to live. And if this age bracket embraces and lives the culture, well, then the culture stands a fighting chance.

Many of us don’t live with just one culture. We live within a society that has a dominant one, in most cases, Western culture. Some of us have a family heritage associated with another non-Western tradition. And still others have various layers of cultures they were either born into or adopted over time. I believe we don’t have to preserve one in the face of a dominating other. We can embrace multiple cultures and make them truly last. We can live them.

It’s not, however, going to be easy. If you truly embrace living the multiple cultures from which you are made up, you will find that sometimes there are conflicts. Reality is complex, why should living multiple cultures within that reality not be? Navigating those conflicts is what means we’re living in the here and now. So embrace that reality and live your cultures.

~Dalya

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