When I wrote my first Jewish Journey story about The Sleeping Giant, I meant to follow it up shortly with another one, but things got busy and how the time flies! To briefly recap for all my new readers, a Jewish Journey is the story of a person’s Jewish life: what their practice is like, how they got there, and where they want to go with their Judaism. I like retelling these stories as allegory because I feel they are instructive. This Jewish Journey, The Baton Carrier, I hear about a lot and I really wanted to write about this one now because as the High Holidays (or insert other holiday here) approach, themes from this journey emerge for many people.
The Baton Carrier is a well-known theme for many Jews as most of us understand that our traditions are passed down through the generations. L’dor va’dor, right? So, in a way, all of us are baton carriers. The baton is symbolic of home-based Jewish traditions, such as holiday meals, shabbat dinners, etc. and the runners are the people in a family. Some of us are the leadoff runner, the person handing off the baton to another. Some of us are the recipient, receiving the baton and either currently or hopefully in the future, handing it off to another. It sounds simple and when it goes smoothly, looks as easy as can be.
Not every relay race goes smoothly though, and here are two of the most common themes I’ve heard…
The Lonely Leadoff
The leadoff runner is the person who starts the race holding the baton and passes it to someone else. In the case of the Lonely Leadoff though, there is no one to pass it to! In the best scenario, the loneliness is temporary because the next runner is just children that are currently too small to participate fully yet. However, if there are no descendants or uninterested descendants, the loneliness is felt more keenly.
Whenever I’ve heard this story it is almost always an older person that finds it hard to have big events like they use to and wishes someone in the family would step forward and take it on. They may find themselves unsure of whether any descendants want to carry the baton or they may be concerned that someone else doesn’t have the know-how or financial support to carry it. Because they themselves feel the burden of the baton, they may be hesitant to ask others to carry it. The worst thing that can happen, which I’ve been sad to hear, is that they never hand it off and they die having not passed along any traditions.
So what do you do as the Lonely Leadoff? “Wishing” others would carry the baton actually needs to turn into ASKING (and that means out-loud face-to-face with another human) others to participate. Asking out loud is the only way and it can start small, like asking someone to bring a dish to a seder or it can be big like asking for someone to host the seder entirely. Whatever it is, it is important to not be a martyr. Ask for help so you can assist in passing the baton and it doesn’t get dropped. You may find that someone has been Coveting the Baton after all.
Coveting the Baton
If I had a dime for every time someone told me that someone in their family won’t pass the baton, I’d be a rich woman. Sadly, some of us feel in this position. Sometimes people want to be in the race but feel forced in the spectator role. Generally, this is because the person holding the baton doesn’t want to pass it. Whether someone really doesn’t want to pass it can be just perceived or really true. Someone in the Coveting the Baton journey sounds like, “I wish I could have Yom Kippur Break the Fast, but so-and-so always does it” or “I wish I could have the seder, but we always have first night at my mother-in-law’s house.” Continuing on this journey for long can lead to resentment and negative emotions. The risk is that the negative emotions turn people off from wanting to be in the race at all. I’ve heard of people sitting through seders they hate and their children hate, just because they are honoring tradition. What is the use in that?!
When you are Coveting the Baton, it is imperative to find out whether your leadoff truly doesn’t want to hand off or whether it is just your perception because it is the only thing you’ve experienced in the relationship thus far. If you are coveting the baton, ask yourself whether you have really ASKED (and that means out-loud face-to-face with another human) for a part to play. It might sound like, “Can I bring the kugel next year? I’d like to practice your recipe” or “I’d love to try and run a seder myself. Can I try next year?” Asking isn’t easy but as my father always told me, you’d be happier with rejection than never knowing at all and I really believe that to be true. It is always good to know where you stand.
So what do you do, if it is true that the person holding the baton doesn’t want to let it go and you know that because they have rejected your more-than-once offer to participate? Well, as a therapist once told me, “Continue if you can do so without resentment and anger. If you cannot, you have to go your own way.”
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Conflicts in the relay race generally boil down to two things…how you define “tradition” and whether you have held out your hand to give or receive the baton (in the form of ASKING, which is out-loud face-to-face with another human).
Is tradition a particular place, like Bubbe’s home? Is tradition a particular dish, like a kugel? Is tradition a particular role, like who runs the seder? I would say tradition is none of those things. Tradition is the coming together of a group of people in pursuit of togetherness over a holiday or celebration. Super general, right? The key word is togetherness. That is what tradition is about, and if you think about tradition that way, it gives room for Hanukkah in a variety of homes, and with a variety of dishes served, and with a variety of people who can lead the blessings.
So what about you? Have you been handing off, coveting, or hoarding the baton?