Last night was the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. For Jews, this means celebration with family and friends, eating apples and honey, sending postcards to friends, and wishing all well (“Shanah tovah!”). One of the things that I love about Jewish holidays is that they are typically filled with friends, family, food, alcohol, and celebratory attitudes (except for Yom Kippur which is a bit more serious). As a non-Jew, I have a deep admiration for the various rituals that are a part of Jewish holidays. I especially love how my snarky secular Jewish friends are more likely to modify them to make them more fun rather than reject them. Consider the Dr. Seuss Haggadah we did for Passover one year. Christian holidays don’t quite have that flexibility, unless you consider the way Americans turned the day of Resurrection into an opportunity to gorge yourself in chocolate and chase after plastic eggs. I guess that’s fun too, but it’s a bit different since I can’t work out what bunnies have to do with Christ nor do I think of over-consumption of material goods for personal desire as a fun-ification of a holiday. I’m more down with the excuses to bring together friends and drink that I am with the excuses to buy gifts.
I especially appreciated last night’s holiday because I spent the night before at my advisor’s memorial service. On one hand, it was so good to see everyone and to hear people share their stories of Peter. I love that man and it’s hard to stomach the reality that he’s gone. Yet, I’m not so good at group mourning. And the whole memorial thing made me antsy and uncomfortable in ways that I can’t yet articulate. But I think that part of the puzzle has to do with the way in which major events are ritualized (or not) in American society.
Standing outside, Mimi was talking about the differences between the American approach to death and memorial and the Japanese approach. She told me about how there were prescribed activities that you do on certain days in certain ways. Depending on your relationship to the deceased, you know exactly what you’re supposed to do, who you’re supposed to say what to, when you are supposed to show up, etc. We don’t have that. Nowhere was this more clear than when you looked around the room at what people were wearing. Some people had dressed up, some wore all black, some wore what they normally wore, etc. At one point, I was teasing someone about their suit and he responded with a remark about how it was what you’re supposed to do. And then another person (in casual wear) responded that Peter would’ve wanted people to be comfortable. The fact that that conversation happened shows the way that we’re not sure what to do when how.
At every step of this process, I’ve felt like a total fuckup. Do I send flowers? What should the card say? Should I show up to the widow’s house? Should I send a letter? What should I say to the widow, to the children? What should I wear to the memorial? Everyone’s response to me is always to do what would make me feel better and I want to scream at them that having a script would make me feel a hell of a lot better.
Social scripts are funny things. Most of them stem from religious traditions, but are deeply embedded in society as cultural practices. Not a single one of the Jews at my house last night could explain why honey and apples, but they all knew that’s what you do. And they were all able to tell me the Jewish traditions for mourning. And the Jewish traditions for weddings. And the Jewish traditions for holidays. And the Jewish traditions for births. My friends have a Jewish social script and they all know it, even if they preferred to modify it (shiva, but chairs allowed; chupah and glass, but no rabbi; apples or afikoman, but no kosher meal; bris ceremony, but no knives). Yet, most American folks can’t even tell you what the social script is supposed to be for most situations and it’s so damned modified that everyone around you is imagining an entirely different script. Every wedding I go to has different dress code expectations, gifting expectations, and social norms. I’m at a loss for how to participate in mourning, at a loss for what to do when a child is born.
Are the lack of social scripts in the U.S. because Christianity never had strong traditions that would be continued by secular ancestors? Or because American scripts have been defined by Hollywood that changes the traditions with each generation? Or because the U.S. didn’t really melt diverse scripts into one, but boiled them out to be non-existent? Or because we’re too damn rebellious as a secular society to have any patience for any expectations? Or why? Why do we not have social scripts that can help frame the situation for the crowd?
I’m finding myself frustrated with the lack of social scripts and then curious about my desire for a more “conservative” way and then frustrated because I’m at a loss for how to make sense of these social situations. It’s not that I want the social script to be definitive… I just want it to be there as a guiding principle that allows people to focus on what they’re really trying to focus on: a joining of two lovely people, mourning, celebration, etc. I’ve been re-reading Goffman lately and I’m reminded of all of the social scripts that used to exist in society that we’ve so diligently destroyed. As a rebellious college student, I loved the destruction of traditions. Now, I just want to be able to relax into a script every once in a while, even if that script can be annoying at times. It’s not that I want the scripts to be rigid, but I want conscious engagement with and modification of the scripts rather than an outright rejection of them. Maybe I’m just getting old.