It’s interesting how even three years since our return, the lessons keep coming, less frequently but still prevalent.
I remember while living in Spain how moved I was by the community’s commitment to celebrating and ritualising important cultural events like Saints’ days, national days, Easter and the annual ‘feria’ among many, many other festivals.
I relished the involvement of the whole community (young, old and in between) who came together to celebrate cultural events with music, street parades, art and costume. It made me realise how grounding and connecting it is to gather and celebrate as a whole community.
In Australia, I find it is predominantly sport that involves such communal ritual and yet I wouldn’t say that I can relate to it. This week, for example, we had the Melbourne Cup horse race: “the race that stops the nation”, which is, in essence, a ritual of dressing up, drinking, betting and whipping horses to run faster with the hope of winning money on your bets. Doesn’t quite cut it for me personally and so I sat alone at my office desk while the champagne popped and cheers echoed through the city.
While living in Spain I observed how much time people spend together as families where events and activities tend to be geared for the whole family. Meanwhile back in Australia, we juggle our time between the myriad of individual pursuits including ferrying our children to their extracurricular activities and parties. There is definitely something to note in the difference between the collective culture of Mediterranean Europe and the individualistic culture of Australia. Not that either one is perfect but I think we could learn and cross-pollinate from each other.
Having grown up in a place where one’s personal choices are vast and usually unencumbered by tradition or the upholding of heritage, and then having experienced the collective culture of Spain, I have long pondered how strong the sense of identity and belonging is in Spain. Here in Australia, I wonder about the means by which one develops a sense of identity or a compass to navigate the vast array of choices when one only has themselves to be accountable to.
While I try never to take for granted the bountiful freedoms, rights and opportunities available in Australia, I do question whether people really value those opportunities when it comes with very little obligation or responsibility in return, other than obeying the laws and paying your taxes (though even that now seems to be optional according to the recently leaked Paradise Papers).
My friends who have more recently made Australia home, arriving from South America, Eastern Europe and South Africa, emphatically explain their reason for living in and loving Australia. They consistently praise the sense of freedom they experience here. The freedom to break from the traditional societal expectations in their homelands where class and economic status play a much greater role in daily life compared to the flatter less hierarchical dynamics of Australian society.
Clearly each culture (individual or collective) has its pros and cons and I think the beauty is in acknowledging what each offers and attempting to bring aspects of both where possible.
Recently many of these insights came to a head when my family and I celebrated my son’s bar mitzvah. It turned out to be a very emotional and meaningful day for our family despite much of it being very new to us. When my family arrived in Australia in 1957 as refugees from Hungary, their focus was squarely on assimilating and rebuilding a secure future that had been lost when they fled Europe. Having survived the Nazis during WWII followed by the strong arm of Russian occupation, they had virtually lost all of their Jewish identity and rituals in addition to their material wealth.
And so it was last month, that our 13-year-old son chose the ritual of bar mitzvah as his right of passage – the first child in three generations in our family. A combination of history, circumstance and choice led us back to our Jewish cultural heritage. The process has gently guided him (and us as parents) in the transition to adolescence and soon adulthood. I feel so appreciative to be able to reconnect with and draw on my family’s ancient cultural heritage. It provides us with the compass we need to navigate the vicissitudes of this complex and sometimes confounding modern world.
Personally, I believe for an individual to effectively navigate the myriad of choices, one requires a solid anchor of identity: knowing who you are, where you belong and what is important, and this is influenced by a sense of community built on shared ritual.
I absolutely attribute the year our family spent in Spain for reminding us of the power and beauty of ritual in community.