Are Our Traditions Keeping Us From Thriving?
by Emily Zimmer
What do Fiddler on the Roof, “The Art of Gathering,” and the correlation between risk taking and happiness have in common?
It was long before I read Priya Parker’s “The Art of Gathering” that I started to wonder how to make mundane gatherings more interesting and personal. When I stumbled upon the book, I was relieved to find that there was a method to the madness of changing “the way we do things.” I was excited to discover that not only is it more than possible to rock the boat of traditional celebrations and gatherings, but that tampering with tradition was actually somebody’s full time job. “The Art of Gathering” aims to question and reinvent the intentionality that goes into creating an event, but I believe it’s about something much deeper. Questioning traditional gatherings is much more about questioning tradition that it is about questioning gatherings.
The book’s way of questioning tradition in a neat and ironic manner seems to closely resemble the prologue of Fiddler on the Roof. In the opening words of Fiddler we learn about Tevye’s home, Anatevka, and its most crucial pillar: tradition. “The Art of Gathering” and Fiddler on the Roof both call out and ultimately name the flaws that exist in a society that relies exclusively on tradition to keep it on its feet. Let’s keep going.
In the iconic, main title track, “Tradition,” Tevye describes the people of Anatevka as being hell-bent on tradition. Throughout the song, he emphasizes the ways that tradition gives them meaning and purpose. Yet the ominous and ironic tone of the song immediately signals to the listener that a nagging flaw exists in the system. As he describes the struggles of living in Anatevka, Tevye says:
“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, ‘why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ We stay because Anatevka is our home… And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word… tradition.”
In the above verse Tevye attributes the success of his community to their ability to stick to tradition. He links home with tradition, and perhaps with safely as well.
Tradition binds the people of Anatevka to building observant homes the way they always have, to marry off their daughters, “to scramble for a living… say daily prayers,” and to abide by the rules of Jewish law in all aspects of life, even without understanding what any of it means.
This is not uncommon to those of us who structure our gatherings around societal norms and what our families have always done. An example that Priya Parker gives at the beginning of the “The Art of Gathering” is the baby shower her friends planned for her before the birth of her first child. As the date grew near, she was completely caught off guard when her husband asked her for more details about where and when the party was. Priya was flabbergasted at the thought of her husband attending her baby shower. Meanwhile, he was confused as to why he wouldn’t be invited.
“We were expecting our first child. My girlfriends offered to throw me a baby shower. We didn’t spend any time thinking about why we were having a baby shower… It was almost becoming routine — that great enemy of meaningful gatherings… I was excited. The problem was, my husband was too” (Parker, 8).
This moment caused Priya to question the purpose of a throwing a baby shower. When we picture a baby shower, we imagine a room full of women on a bright Sunday afternoon sipping white wine and opening presents. Why is this the ritual we employ to celebrate the transition to parenthood? And why aren’t men invited to celebrate? Little things like this create a world where men aren’t expected to be as involved in their children’s lives and celebrating parenthood becomes something a woman does with her friends as opposed to something a couple does together. While a baby shower for women only seems sweet and classic, asking ourselves what we’re actually trying to accomplish by throwing a baby shower may awaken us to the fact that sweet and classic just aren’t going to cut it.
According to Fiddler on the Roof, tradition is the thing that’s helped us “keep our balance.” The thing that tells us who we are and who we are to each other. Tradition teaches us how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes, and according to Priya, it teaches us how to gather as well. For years we’ve been the people of Anatevka — following the traditions of our town, and the ways of our rabbi, whoever he is. We rely on social norms to keep us afloat. We dress alike, speak alike, and spend our time in the same places, simply because we always have, and because everybody else is.
“The Art of Gathering” encourages us to ask questions about why we gather the way we do. Why do we celebrate birthdays the way we do? With pointy hats and celebratory cakes? Why do we sit in large boardrooms with mile long tables and generic artwork? Who encouraged us to have the same Friday night dinner week after week? Who is Tradition to tell us to continue this way? Tevya claims that tradition not only tells us what to do and where to go, but encourages us to follow it even if we don’t know why:
“Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything… how to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl… This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition… Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
In this verse Tevye outs himself when he asks a redundant question, one to which he openly doesn’t know the answer to. These are the rules! This is what we’ve always done, and even more, this is what God wants from us. Yet he outwardly and dismissively misses the mark, claiming that tradition is the glue, not knowledge or understanding. This touches on a very relevant topic of conversation. Both Fiddler on the Roof and “The Art of Gathering” live at the intersection of tradition and modernity. Tevye struggles as the needs of his family press against the tradition he’s always known, whereas Priya pays tribute to the past while pushing her reader to question and experiment.
The need to stick to tradition may indicate a fear of risk-taking. As Tevya famously claims, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as a fiddler on the roof!” This claim states point blank that deviating from tradition is dangerous business and leads me to a question Tevya may have overlooked: Does tradition make us happy?
Were the people of Anatevka happy living the lives of their ancestors? After all, “Anatevka isn’t exactly the Garden of Eden.” Studies show that risk-taking may lead to a happier life. To quote Psychology Today, “Risk-taking is essential to learning what your limits are, to growing as an individual and to cultivating a thriving life… Without taking risks, it’s impossible to learn the skills that enable you to thrive in life, like learning to manage emotions in uncertain circumstances – which life is full of.”
What if the people of Anatevka grew up learning to take risks? To ask questions about their society and to live the lives of their dreams, regardless of their circumstances. But in the song “Anatevka” we hear the citizens mourn as they fathom leaving their home and express a very different opinion.
“It’s just a place.”
“Our forefathers have been forced out of many, many places at a moment’s notice.”
“Maybe that’s why we always wear our hats.”
In this moment, Tevya reminds us that in the whirlwind of exile and change, we must continue to wear our hats. As the waters of change roll to the surface, we remember who we are and where we came from.
I deeply believe that we can guard our tradition while simultaneously embracing our future selves. When Priya Parker realized that celebrating the birth of her new baby was something she and her husband should do together, the idea became obvious to her. As humankind continues to invent, innovate, and go where no one ever imagined we would, we recognize the values we’ll always have and the ones we must reinvent in order to thrive.’
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