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Thought for the Day: Rosh Hashana 2021

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“A real connection with one’s forebears can provide a stabilising sense of belonging to a much larger whole.”


This evening, at dinner tables around the world, apples will be dipped in honey. 

Steeped in symbolism and significance, this is a popular custom for the Jewish New Year. The apple is perishable, while honey is a preservative. Bringing the two together, we celebrate the timely and the timeless. We embrace innovation while honouring tradition. 

Though both are essential ingredients in our lives, we rightfully celebrate creativity, but don’t always acknowledge the extent to which our heritage enriches our lives. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for year, ‘Shana’, literally means ‘repetition’, alluding to the fact that each year we observe the very same calendar events ordained by God that have been kept for centuries. 

On Friday, it was announced that Afghan refugees in Britain will be taught about British values, culture and civic duties under plans for a new integration scheme. Government Ministers wish to emulate Italy, France and Germany, where newcomers are given numerous language lessons, civic training classes and culture passes for museums and galleries. 

This is very welcome news. In addition, it is likely that  the newcomers will feel a responsibility to maintain a strong connection with the heritage they’ve left behind. Our Jewish experiences over the centuries have taught us how crucially important tradition is in the wake of traumatic dislocation.  

In the mid-90’s, Professor Marshall Duke of Emory University, developed the ‘Do You Know’ scale – a series of questions about a person’s family history, such as their grandparents’ origins, what their most formative positive and negative life experiences had been, their serious illnesses and major accomplishments. Professor Duke posed these questions alongside a series of standardised psychological tests. Overwhelmingly, the children who had the strongest sense of their ‘Intergenerational Self’, were more resilient, confident and emotionally mature. In particular, the best predictor of emotional health and happiness was what he called the ‘oscillating family narrative’, when children knew that their families had experienced both ups and downs and remained strong throughout.

A real connection with one’s forebears can provide a stabilising sense of belonging to a much larger whole. Upon reaching this conclusion, Professor Duke himself introduced new family customs. He began hiding the food for his family thanksgiving meal in the bushes so that his grandchildren could hunt for it as the pilgrims had done centuries before, thereby creatively connecting them to their ancestry. 

Knowing our ‘Intergenerational Selves’, particularly in challenging times, gives us our heritage, our identity and our inspiration for the future.  

Tevye the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof asked: “And how do we keep our balance?”  “That I can tell you in one word”, he answered…. “Tradition”.