By contributing writer Elizabeth Berg. Originally published as the Big Question in KidSpirit Magazine's Rituals & Traditions Issue.
My dad steps out of the car, looks around at the surrounding stores, and grumbles. "I can't believe how much this area has changed."
He sighs. "When I was growing up, this was an entirely Hungarian neighborhood."
My brother and I exchange amused smirks. Now it's my turn to complain. "Seriously dad? We visit Grandma all the time, and you always mention this."
"Could you please avoid reminiscing about the 'good old days' just this once?" my brother chimes in.
Looking back, my brother and I were actually being pretty rude to our father. It may be true that we can't visit our grandmother without hearing about how the neighborhood has changed since my dad was growing up, but the subject is obviously very important. Of course, neither my brother nor I were mature enough to apologize to my dad. Instead, we'd forget about this conversation, and all of the other ones like it, as soon as we left my grandma's house, until our next visit. Right now, however, I am thinking about my dad's remarks for a completely different reason: I think that he may actually be right.
I didn't come up with this shocking opinion out of the blue. I was actually mulling over this issue's Big Question when the conversation with my father popped into my head. On the one hand, it seems apparent that it is important to learn how others celebrate, because it is hard to connect with people who are different from you if you don't really understand how they think or what they believe. On the other hand, learning about your own traditions places you into a community. The experience of actually celebrating the same things and sharing common beliefs connects people more than having the same knowledge without practical experience. Some people worry that if we immerse ourselves too deeply into a new tradition, we may become disconnected from the community, or even the family, in which we grew up. We don't want to learn about different traditions at the expense of our own. Between these opposing ideas it seems the main goal is finding the middle line between the two extremes, opening yourself up to other ideas without abandoning what you stand for. And this is exactly what has not happened in my grandma's neighborhood.
As my dad always laments, the previously Hungarian area no longer has any cultural identity. He misses the family-run businesses that he frequented as a kid, now mostly replaced by random and impersonal stores. His main problem with the neighborhood changes is not that it's no longer Hungarian, it's that no other community-owned stores came in to replace it. After learning more about how other neighboring areas were assimilating, his previously closely-knit community abandoned much of their former identity, no longer practicing the same traditions or holding the same celebrations.
Overall, I am definitely not saying that the area around my grandma's house would have been better off if no one in the area had tried to learn more about new traditions or branched off. In fact, my dad also admits that the neighborhood used to feel too exclusive. His family wasn't Hungarian, and he felt left out and resented it. His experience shows the positives and negatives of respecting other people's traditions as well as your own -- showing that it is important to understand that you can learn about how others celebrate without abandoning your own beliefs. Ultimately, being part of a community that has its own rituals and celebrations and being open-minded about other people having different beliefs are not mutually exclusive.
When she wrote this, Elizabeth Berg was 15 years old and in the 10th grade. She enjoys reading, biking, and playing softball.