Reflecting on Culture

When I first wrote about my cultural identification with Judaism, I hadn't given much thought to the great number of factors that together constitute a given culture, such as history, geography, food, language, music, poetry, religion, sport, and other social establishments.

What's the Craic?: The Cultural Landscapes of Ireland (COLL 129) has taught me that though a culture may feel intuitive or natural to those belonging to it, in actuality, so many ingredients go into the creation of what we simply call "culture." For instance, when I think of being Jewish, certain distinct memories and traditions come to mind, including eating challah bread on ceremonial occasions, reading children's books about the story of Hanukkah, lighting the candles on a menorah, and attending large family gatherings.

Thanks to the aforementioned introductory course on Irish culture, I can also now better identify the history that underpins what I consider to be the key tenets of Judaism: tolerance, the pursuit of knowledge, recognition of the validity of other belief systems, and, perhaps most importantly, the primacy of one's duty to advocate on behalf of disenfranchised populaces. Because much of Jewish history reads as a saga of subjection to prejudice and persecution of varying degrees, I associate Judaism with a general openness to diversity and difference. Modern era Judaism is distinct among the Abrahamic religions for its customary aversion to proselytism, with Rabbis often going so far as to discourage new members from joining the faith, indicative of the great emphasis placed upon cultivating a true "Jewish identity." While this does in some respects paint a picture of the religion as insular and exclusionary, it also better ensures that those who do convert to Judaism have done so of their own accord. Additionally, from what I've gathered through my experiences with Reform Judaism, it seems as though this disdain for acts of proselytism reflects an underlying respect for other religions, as well as an acute awareness of the long history of Jewish people being forcibly converted, typically to Christianity.

Researching the contemporary state of Catholicism in the Republic of Ireland, I was intrigued to learn that some portion of the Irish population considers themselves to be "cultural" Catholics rather than practicing ones, a testament to the longstanding dichotomy between Catholic Ireland and Protestant England. From this, I realized that much of culture is defined in opposition to something else, some "other"; it can be easier to describe what you are not than it is to really establish what you do in fact stand for.