I was asked to speak this evening briefly about what tradition means to Americans.
When I hear that word “Tradition,” I’m reminded of the musical, Fiddler on the Roof – have you seen it? As an American Jewish woman descended from eastern European Jews, it had a special meaning for me growing up.
The musical starts out with a song I especially loved – the one with the lead character “Tevye” singing the song “Tradition.”
The song presents gender specific roles of the father working, the mother staying at home, and the daughters marrying upstanding Jewish men in order to achieve successful lives. It talks about respecting Jewish laws and customs and shares that the richness of our heritage is based on the strict adherence to those texts and traditions.
And yet the musical, adapted by a New Yorker from a story written in Yiddish (in an area that is now Ukraine), presents a uniquely American story. The film symbolizes how we, not just as Jews, but as Americans, evolve and change over time to defy stereotypes, build new lives, and wrestle with the balance of retaining the customs that have historically defined us with the innovations and qualities that fulfill us.
Many people call America a “Melting Pot.” And, I’m sure that, especially among Swiss, they then visualize a fondue. But I think about our melting pot more like a stew – like a boeuf bourgugnion – where you have chunks of meat, vegetables, and thick gravy – items that blend together beautifully, but also retain their unique flavors and textures and where the interplay of the individual items makes each taste better.
The diversity that we celebrate in America – and that I also often see here in Switzerland – fuels our innovation, our creativity, our boldness, and our vision for a better world! We celebrate that different people bring their rich backgrounds and traditions to bear in our beautiful stew of a republic and that we learn from each other, we influence each other, and we make each other better because of it.
Just look at the influence Swiss people have had on America! Since 1800 about 400,000 people or 70% of all Swiss emigrants chose the U.S. as their new homeland. Because of Louis Chevrolet, many people drive down Route 66 in style; because of Albert Gallatin, accountability in our Treasury Department is not just expected, but required; and because of Othmar Hermann Ammann, millions of people can get into and out of New York City each day across the Verrazano-Narrows and the George Washington Bridges. I could continue – but it’d take a lot longer than I have because, currently, about 1.2 million U.S. citizens have Swiss roots!
Because the promise of my nation is the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, tradition in the United States is something completely unique – it becomes both our history and our future, all at once.
When I compare my life and home to Tevye’s in Fiddler on the Roof – we, as a family, have Shabbat (or Sabbath) Dinner, celebrate the Jewish holidays, and keep kosher – but my husband and I are both professionals, our expectations for our son AND our daughter are based on who they are and not on who they may choose as partners, and we recognize and revel in the fact that our children may retain some of the richness of our heritage – but that they will contribute more positively to the world because they will also develop their own sources of joy and fulfillment.
Ours is the American form of Tradition – one that we share with the 321 million other people who call The United States of America home – no matter what their background.
Tradition in America is the celebration of who we have each been individually and the continued pursuit of our perfect union together.