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 🕎. 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 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.

  2. 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 leaving—poverty—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.


      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 🙂

  3. 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,

    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%.


  4. 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. 🙏🏼 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! 🥂


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