As a true fan of diversity, I love to travel and experience the various cultures the world has to offer. Even if I’m not adventurous enough to actually eat the more exotic foods I encounter, I still enjoy watching other people eat them and I enjoy photographing them. I love it when the natives dress in native costumes, when they speak tribal languages, practice interesting rituals and hold colorful parades in honor of festivals I’d previously never heard of. In my travels I can make believe that locals do all these things for my entertainment. That if they fail to please me in this regard, they owe me a refund on my plane ticket.
In all seriousness, they owe me nothing. Yet do those people have a moral obligation to maintain their own cultures? Are they doing anything wrong if they forsake their traditional dress in favor of jeans and t-shirts? Is it a sin if they treat their ancestral language as a pariah? If McDonalds pleases their pallet more than their mother’s cooking, should they be rebuked? Should we encourage them to stop watching the Simpsons and participate in local festivities instead?
We could argue that, even if their own behavior is their own business, they’re robbing their descendants of a heritage. I think that, on some level, there is a moral obligation to maintain one’s culture, at least the harmless aspects of it.
My Peruvian vacation was a mixed bag in this regard. The foods did not disappoint. I’ve already written about native languages. I was pleasantly surprised by local festivities and I even had some good musical experiences. Back in the U.S., I was filling out a mental score card of how well Peru fulfilled my cultural expectations – and then I accepted an observant Jew as a housemate.
I realized that if somebody were grading me on my own culture, I’d get an “F”. I don’t practice Judaism, not even the holidays. At least, given the opportunity, I speak Hebrew.
But it’s not my fault. Long ago, something terrible happened to the Jews: Our culture was transformed into a religion. Before this happened, it was possible to be a Jew by living the culture, even without being a particularly religious person. There was a Jewish way of dressing, Jewish food, Jewish traditions and Jewish language. There were sensitivities that might have transcended any sense of spirituality or religious obligation. Back then, one didn’t have to worry about going to hell if he didn’t live as a Jew; it’s all he knew.
Americans watch football, eat fast food, go to movies and upgrade their cell phones every few months not because they consciously choose to adhere to a specific lifestyle. They do so because this is their default behavior and they rarely have occasion to question it. Once it was the same for Jews. Zionism was an attempt to restore this state of affairs. It enjoyed some success but time has shown it to be an uphill struggle. It appears that to be truly successful, a complete cultural identity must come naturally – but we all now live in a giant blender where “globalism” only grudgingly allows smaller peoples to keep their own ways.
As for me, I welcome my new housemate as both a friend and an opportunity to reconnect with some of my own traditions – but I won’t pretend to believe in fairy tales. It should be interesting.