Holiday thoughts: Jewish v. Not

Chanukah ended, and though I haven’t written a word about it yet, I have been mulling something over quite a bit.

Traditionally, there’s a song that Jews sing after reciting the blessings and lighting the candles of the chanukiah πŸ•Ž. This song is called Ma’oz Tzur (“Strong Rock”), and there exists a popular, non-literal English translation called “Rock of Ages”.

Here is the full song in Hebrew. There are six stanzas:

This is a tune that I find myself humming throughout the year, even when it isn’t Chanukah; I just love it. Unfortunately, I don’t know the words to all of the stanzas by heart so I can only sing it with a prayer book in front of me.

While I speak Hebrew passably, it is not my mother tongue, and memorizing multi-stanza songs in Hebrew takes me some effort. On the other hand, as I observe my daughter, born and bred in the Jewish homeland, I delight in her Hebrew fluency. Also, traditional Jewish songs like Ma’oz Tzur have infused every moment of her comprehensively Jewish life in Israel. She hears Jewish songs at home; at school; at the mall; in taxis; pretty much everywhere.


Growing up in the USA, Christmas carols on the radio and Halloween songs at school were the norm for me, and while I never thought twice about my diaspora reality, these were not my family’s holidays.

I still remember the messaging that was directed at me in the eighties and the nineties when I was a child, attending Hebrew school (an afterschool program) at my synagogue. We were discouraged from trick-or-treating on Halloween; from marrying non-Jews; from falling for the wiles of Christian missionaries; etc.

This messaging was born of the Jewish establishment’s fear of Jewish assimilation, which was heightening, along with the rate of intermarriage (i.e., Jews marrying gentiles) in the USA. (As the years rolled on, the Jewish establishment gradually lost this messaging battle and had to find new strategies. Assimilation proved itself unstoppable.)

By the way, there is nothing new under the sun. You see, the Jewish community’s concern over the threat of assimilation is millennia old. The Chanukah story, which took place in the 2nd century BCE, was no less than one of a vicious and bloody Jewish civil war over Hellenization. In other words, Jewish traditionalists were pitted against Jewish Hellenizers who wanted to adopt many elements of Greek life and culture. You can guess who won.

It’s important, I think, to put this historic Jewish concern over assimilation into perspective. As of 2015, there are some 2.168 billion Christians, 1.599 billion Muslims, and less than 15 million Jews worldwide.


I honestly don’t quite know why I care so passionately about my people; but I do, and I have cared for as long as I can remember.

As a modern, I support and can respect people’s personal choices, as long as they do not cause harm to others; and, believe me, I well understand the appeal of assimilation for all minority groups. In all honesty, I was once very judgmental of more assimilated Jews, but my judgmentalism has profoundly dissipated over the last decade or so, as I’ve increasingly begun to appreciate and seek to understand the contexts of people’s decisions. You do you; I do me. Let’s aim to understand one another.

On the other hand, as a Jew, I am deeply invested in my people’s continued existence, for the Jewish people is my extended family. So what can I do to maximize the odds that my child(ren) will not assimilate?

One of the best answers I have found to this question is quite simple: I can raise my child(ren) in the Jewish state of Israel, in a society which is mostly Jewish, which celebrates Jewish holidays, which speaks a Jewish language…

I am certain, thankful and proud that my daughter will not need to read the stanzas from a prayer book when she sings Ma’oz Tzur with her children during Chanukah.

54 thoughts on “Holiday thoughts: Jewish v. Not”

  1. I understand this so much. My paternal grandparents were Orthodox. When my parents divorced my mother agreed to raise us in the synagogue if he would pay for it as she was unable to do so. After a short time he quit and so our religious training ended. My mother had converted before meeting my father. We were raised without organized religion. We celebrated both Christian and Jewish holidays. My grandparents were my only source of a real Jewish connection. After my divorce, I took classes and struggled to get an understanding of my faith.

    1. Thank you so much for responding and sharing, Lauren. I deeply appreciate it.

      My parents both came out of the USSR (which was a secular Communist society) knowing very little about Judaism, but knowing with utter certainty that they were Jewish – because that was printed on their ID cards.

      Compared to most of my extended family, my parents knew more about Judaism and were more inclined towards tradition… but when I started exploring and learning about Judaism as an adult, I very quickly realized how little I actually knew about Judaism at all.

      -David

      1. I tried as a teen to attend some functions at a nearby synagogue. It was a flop as cliques were already in place and I was not so welcome. It turned me off to organized religion. There are very few Jews in the are where I live. The only close synagogue was so depleted of members it held Reform services on Friday night and Conservative services on Sat morning. They were embittered amongst themselves. I tried to take Hebrew classes from a wonderful young woman Rabbi. It was very difficult as an adult. She moved to another area and it was never the same feeling there again. I have read prolifically about Judaism and I know, I know very little. I am proud of my lineage but fear for the future of our people.

    2. Interesting. I don’t have these fixed identities since our identity as a people is scattered in bits and pieces all over the history books. But what’s nice, there are scholars who are applying themselves to bring our history to the fore. We go along with everybody else’s holidays and celebrations.
      In my lineage there is a jew, in the same way that there is an Irishman, and other nationalities . There is also much debate and an enormous unclarity if this one or that one was Jewish Irish or Malaysian. Needless to say we don’t have a sustained culture or identity, only when it comes to our cooking and certain arts and crafts.
      It’s wonderful to walk the earth knowing you come from such a strong lineage and despite all the suppression the identity remains in tact.
      Rock of ages, is a spiritual amongst us and a favourite.
      Other people who’ve been scattered across the world, build their lives though assimilation, still keeping the fundamental tenets of their faith beliefs and cultures.

      1. Yes, I think that “assimilation” isn’t a cause for concern for most people on the planet… that’s why I feel the need to explain it to my readers πŸ™‚

        -David

        1. I loved that you did the numbers thing and with the boldfacing and underlining. That did make it very understandable.

        2. Thanks so much, Lia. I’m really trying to be understandable, and, as you well know, a wrong word or missing emoji can totally morph the meaning of one’s words online.

    1. Angela,

      I just tried it again (directly from my blog), and it seems to work for me.

      But if it doesn’t work for you – you can search for ‘Maoz Tzur’ on YouTube. This particular version is by Moshe Bergel.

      -David

  2. It is true that assimilation has proved unstoppable to many in the diaspora. The Orthodox have fared somewhat better than the Progressive, but neither has a great success rate, except the most Haredi (who succeed with methods that I think have too great a cost).

  3. As a Catholic, I deal with some of the same problems of assimilation, though I’m sure it was more pronounced for you in the States. We had to pull our kids out of a solid Catholic school over funds, and it broke our hearts. We’re trying to keep the spirit alive over here.

    1. CA,

      You know, I went to public school all my life, but I wish I’d gone to a Jewish day school…

      But that wasn’t something that I ever seriously considered as an alternative until I grew up, and my public school was a very good one – I got a very good education there.

      Today, it’s such a blessing for me to see my daughter getting a Jewish education in public school by virtue of living here in Israel.

      I’m sorry about having to pull your kids out 😦

      -David

    1. Yes, Cindy – that is actually a photograph of all 3 of our chanukiot – my wife’s is the tallest in the back, mine is the big, broad one, and our daughter’s is the short one in the front. That’s why there are so many candles – it was the final night of Chanukah… so – nine candles times three chanukiot = 27!

      -David

  4. I couldn’t understand the meaning, but I definitely liked the tune and pics. Yes, I fully resonate with your perspective.

    1. I really appreciate your words, Kaushal.

      TBH, I feel like I have to explain myself to so many people when I talk about this because one would have to be a part of a minority group facing assimilation in order to relate on a personal level… and I know that this particular subject isn’t universally appealing or interesting, but it’s deeply ingrained in my heart.

      -David

  5. I was hoping and hoping you’d do a Chanukah post… so glad to read this. Loved it all. My family was not religious and I enjoyed the philosophical freedom of that, however there was not any obvious way to learn about Judaism nor other religions other than from dry books; meanwhile we were saying the Lord’s Prayer and doing nativity plays at public school.
    What a beautiful photo and celebration of light… πŸ’›πŸ•―πŸ”†

    1. I think I would have relished such philosophical freedom. For all my love of my people, own must of necessity give up individual liberties if one chooses to prioritize a group identity. If I were not born Jewish, I can hardly imagine myself choosing this route.

      -David

  6. I couldn’t help but notice that you mentioned trick or treat. I never allowed my daughter to take part, either.
    But there is a moral here – the notion that somebody says to somebody “give me a treat, or I will play a trick on you” is simply wrong. That kind of message is not one which we should be giving to our children.
    Sorry, but if a church (any organisation) has an objection to Trick or Treat, it should be on those grounds.
    If we do not speak again before, I wish you a Happy New Year.

  7. This is a beautiful song that resonates emotionally even without knowing or understanding the words. I was raised an American Christian yet consider neither group to be “mine”. I understand the longing to be part of something, to belong somewhere. But I also fear it in a way, as I will always be an outsider, and as such, an enemy to all tribes. One reason, among many, that I left the church. (K)

    1. Kerfe,

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply. I also see both sides of “belonging”, and I am very wary of it, despite it being my natural inclination. Personally, I am very deliberate about thinking through the reasons behind the relative weights that I assign my many identities… I try to resist getting swept up in any of them. People who strongly identify with a group and don’t think about their affiliations critically worry me!

      Happy New Year! πŸ₯‚
      David

      1. I think it’s right that you give your children a sense of belonging to something larger if you can. I think it’s very difficult to do in the United States right now.

        Happy New Year!–we are all united in being glad to let 2020 go.

  8. I want to reiterate how much I appreciate your pieces about your faith and your life in Israel. Your honest and informative shares provide a greater understanding and awareness for your readers who may not share your religion. Thank you for sharing the beautiful photo and moving song. πŸ™πŸΌ I have attended a few Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and always loving hearing Hebrew. I have tremendous respect for the time and effort involved in the preparation for the ceremonies. I am looking forward to the next ceremony – my friend’s son is deep in his studies.

    1. Thanks, Michele – I deeply appreciate your feedback and support.

      Increasing understanding (both mine and other people’s) between different kinds of people is very important to me… it’s the only way, to my mind, that any of the wrongs of the world can be righted (assuming that particular wrongs can be righted at all). I happen to know a lot about Jewish culture and religion, and I like to write… so this is what I have to offer.

      I wish you and yours a wonderful, happy, and healthy New Year! πŸ₯‚

      -David

  9. Interestingly enough, this is similar to the pull of passing for white, when possible, in families like mine, even today. Life is just so much easier if people think you are one of them, yet as I get older, my attempts after college to ignore and get away from being black become more clear to me: our history matters, our shared pain matters, and that bond of having left slavery together, yet continued to be persecuted for who we were born, matters. Even when one (or sometimes, in some places, especially) changes religion, in the case of an ethnic minority.
    I simply wish that all people could feel comfortable and valued for the history and language that they bring to the world table, especially a language as ancient and beatiful as Ivrit.
    l’Shalom and Safe Air Hugs to you all, if wanted,
    -Shira

    1. Shira,

      This is so beautiful and true. I love it:

      I simply wish that all people could feel comfortable and valued for the history and language that they bring to the world table

      Thank you. And -yes- I agree with your comparison 100%.

      Sincerely,
      David

  10. I enjoyed this post. It seems very wise to me. I was brought up Irish Catholic in Protestant England. In the 60s and 70s it seemed important to stick together and maintain our differences because we were disliked and distrusted. But assimilation means joining in, beating them at their own game. Religious and cultural differences are just the icing on the cake, to be held onto in private like folk memories.
    Some of us have moved on again, spreading the Irishness a bit further afield and a bit thinner. Some of my family went back to Ireland but most didn’t. The reason for leavingβ€”povertyβ€”hadn’t changed. They joined in and have made a place for themselves among the ‘natives’.
    I think you have made a good decision. If you feel strongly about your people and can join them, then that’s the best thing to do. I wish you well in your extended family and I envy you your position.

    1. Jane, thank you so much for sharing. Really.

      You know, this isn’t even about right and wrong (not that I think that you think so) – it’s about personal decisions, and, as you suggest, the “doability” of following through on them. I am lucky in that I *can* join my people, Many others don’t have such a choice – and that humbles me.

      Yours,
      David

      1. All displaced people can empathise. We all have a longing to belong and sometimes, like for my parents and grandparents it stayed a longing that was completely unobtainable. Anti-Irish feeling has died down in UK but anti-Jewish feeling, inexplicable as it is, never has anywhere seems to me, and if I were in your place I’d hit out for home too.
        We live where and how we manage best without making waves, which is what irks me so much with some immigrant groups. But that’s another story πŸ™‚

  11. I agree that assimilation is a problem, but I find most of the conversations around assimilation off-putting. I wish the conversations were more around, how can we create a vibrant, meaningful, engaging Jewish experience through schools, camps, etc. and make that accessible to more Jews. Instead, I feel like the conversations are focused on intermarriage, blaming the outside world, and sheltering.

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