Ask Your Mama: November 2007

By catalyst

Feed yourself at the ritual smargasboard.
by Donna Henes
ask-mama.jpgDear Mama Donna,

The rituals that I was raised with leave me cold. I am fascinated by the religious customs of other cultures. Specifically, I am drawn to certain aspects of Oriental and Native American traditions that I would like to incorporate into my life, but I am worried about being derivative and exploitative.

Starving in Salt Lake

Dear Starving,

Humankind has developed an extraordinary range of spiritual belief and practice over time. We can expand our ritual horizons by exploring the ways that different people have developed to mark the universal cycles of the seasons and the seasons of their lives. This study helps us to identify and appreciate the value in our own personal and inherited traditions, while at the same time learning to honor what is true and good in every heritage and chosen path.

Little did my father realize that when he dropped us off at Temple Sunday School every week that I would see my younger brother to his classroom, then split the building and go to church. Every Sunday I would choose a different denomination to attend. It wasn't that I was particularly interested in changing my religion. It was simply my way of traveling. I was a senior in high school and I wanted to see what was out there.

I still explore. I collect holidays as you would recipes or CDs. I celebrate everything! Last winter, for example, I attended festivals for Divali, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Three Kings Day as well as the Solstice. The way I see it, every holiday offers a unique selection of food, music, dance, stories, and interesting customs. There is always some element that I can personally identify with, some poignant piece I can carry away and employ to enrich my own existence. There is always a lesson worth learning.

We all have much to learn from each other, and much to teach, as well. When we feel that our own culture is completely lacking in meaningful ritual, we might be tempted to adopt or emulate another tradition. But no matter how interesting, enlightening and inspiring we find another culture, we can't just put on the ritual way of others as if it were a costume. Imitation, in this case, is the ultimate form not of flattery but of disrespect. It is never appropriate to expropriate.

Yet, we live on a small planet and our world is becoming ever more intimately and inextricably interconnected by transportation, telecommunication, media, financial and computer networks. As peoples and cultures meet and mix they tend to blend. This cross-fertilization results in an authentic evolution of ritual tradition which produces completely new, yet uniquely appropriate custom. Today, we are all spiritual mixed-breeds to some extent, tapping our toes to the same world beat.

In the process of living our lives, we all develop our own personal traditions which may augment or replace entirely the religious traditions of our heritage. We each

create idiosyncratic ceremonial expressions which reflect our ancestry, our personal history, our particular temperament, our experience, our preference, our aesthetic and moral values; our own quirky take on life. We repeat what we like, drop what we don't. By incorporating what is truly meaningful to us, we take a tradition and make it our own.

Thanksgiving is a perfect example. It is the great All-American adaptable ritual. The menu is always identical but for that one out-of-place item which expresses a certain regional, ethnic, or cultural taste. I learned this delicious fact first hand during the many Thanksgiving dinners I have been privileged to share with families across the United States. The Manganello family feast featured turkey with all the trimmings-and lasagna. The Quans served turkey, all the trimmings, and white rice. The Castros added yellow rice and beans. The Robinson clan had turkey and all the trimmings, and macaroni and cheese and collard greens and potato salad. 

Start by exploring your own community. You'll probably find that Salt Lake City offers a rich cornucopia of ritual wealth. One of my favorite pastimes here in the Big Apple is to ride the subway watching the folks read their newspapers and realizing that every paper along the line is in a different language! I once gave a talk about seasonal rituals around the world at a junior high school in Queens where 62 nationalities were represented in the student body.

Diversity is the great strength of the human race. Don't stand on ceremony, savor it! Sample the rich smorgasbord of foods, music, dance, literature, and philosophy which surround you. Talk to the elders who remember the old traditions. Talk to neighbors, shopkeepers, strangers. Attend folk festivals, performances, educational programs, and multicultural events. Visit a variety of ethnic stores, restaurants, museums and places of worship.

Take a class. Learn another language, and look for local opportunities to practice your new communication skills. I know exactly one word in Arabic remembered from a long ago trip to Morocco – shokrun which means "thank you." Every time I eat a falafel or shop in an Islamic-owned corner store, I say "shokrun." That single word has led to many stimulating conversations.

Whenever I eat at my local Dominican coffee shop, I always order in Spanish. For the longest time, everyone from the waitress to the countermen would answer in English; they, too, wanted to hone their new language skills. But eventually, they began to respond in Spanish and help me as I struggled to expand my feeble vocabulary. It has been a great help to me and a wonderful way to share some cultural information and insights.

Live your daily life as though you are on a grand tour around the world. And, exactly as if you were traveling abroad, if you are sincerely interested and polite, friendly and respectful, you will be welcomed and treated as an honored guest wherever you go.

Bon appetit,

Mama Donna

*Are you cyclically confused? In a ceremonial quandary? Completely clueless? Wonder no more. Send your questions about seasons, cycles, and celebrations to Mama Donna at

This article was originally published on October 31, 2007.