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.

Israel, the secular elephant

Would I have embraced the path of religious skepticism to this extent if I had remained in the USA instead of making my home in Israel? I’m inclined to think not, and it troubles me.

* * *

After the secular Jewish upbringing of my youth, I inadvertently discovered Orthodox Judaism as a college freshman in Cleveland, OH, seeking to make connections with any and all other Jews in the face of what felt to me a dearth of Jewish life on campus. I feared, subconsciously, becoming unmoored from my ‘Jewishness’ in the absence of fellow tribesmen.

This experience, I would come to realize years later, was emblematic of Jewish life outside of Israel:

  1. In most places on earth, maintaining one’s Jewish connection and identity necessitates deliberately affiliating with other Jewish people and communities.
  2. Modern day Jewish communities are primarily religious ones, identified by denominational affiliations.

In the years following college and graduate school, I took the opportunity to explore Jewish communities of different stripes, hoping to find my home among them – not only socially but also in terms of religious values, practices, and beliefs.

* * *

It’s important to understand that I was raised with very strong ties to Israel, which profoundly shaped my concept of Jewishness as a child.

Before repatriating to Israel in the mid-70’s, my parents both lived secular lives, as was the default in the USSR. Mama and Papa didn’t become religious in their new home, but they were exposed to traditional Jewish texts and holidays, and they embraced Jewish traditions.

While I was raised in the USA, my cousins grew up in Israel; my parents and I would visit them every few years. Although I didn’t reflect much upon this as a child, my cousins’ lives were much different than my own, Jewishly speaking. In the USA, my secular parents had joined a synagogue, and I attended Hebrew school in the afternoons; my cousins, on the other hand, were not connected to any particular community, but they resided in the Jewish State.

The differences went beyond mere affiliation. Unlike our extended family in Israel,

… our concept of Pesach was grounded in tradition; our seder went beyond simply putting a seder plate on the table.

– Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #10, Oct. 14, 2018

If we had remained in Israel, instead of moving to the USA when I was but a toddler, I dare say that we would have celebrated Passover with our extended family every single year; and we would not have been able to delve into the texts of the haggadah as much as Papa loved to do.

* * *

More likely than not, had my parents and I remained in Israel I would never have developed such a fascination for Judaism as a religion. I would have grown up much like my cousins – a secular Jew in Israel. I would never have worried about losing my ‘Jewishness’, such as it might have been, and never would have felt the need to affiliate myself with a Jewish community.

Israeli Jews speak Hebrew, the Jewish tongue. The State’s work week runs from Sunday through Thursday (just like in the Arab states), and its national holidays include all of the Jewish religious holidays. The symbols of government are all Jewish: the Star of David in the center of the Israeli flag, the 120 members of our Knesset, etc., etc. Also, ~¾ of Israeli citizens are registered as Jewish by the civil government so most of them end up marrying other Jews by default.

Suffice it to say that Jews living in Israel are secure in their Jewish identities, regardless of the degrees to which their personal and family lives are guided by Jewish values and traditions.

* * *

Unfortunately, this security comes with a profound down side, which is that for many secular Israeli Jews – living here in the Jewish State is the primary or even sole Jewish facet of their lives. For too many residents, speaking Hebrew, serving in the Israeli Defense Force, and raising their children in Israel has become the totality of their ‘Jewishness’.

So… what becomes of their Jewish identities when these secular Jews move abroad? Well, many of them come to discover that their children, raised in the Diaspora, feel neither particularly Israeli nor particularly Jewish.

Even for those who remain in Israel, there is a bit of a hollowness to their ‘Jewishness’. Many take the existence of the country for granted and feel no particular attachment to the Land we live on. If the State of Israel had been founded in Uganda in 1903, such Israeli Jews would not have felt much different about their attachment to the Jewish State.

Essentially, with no fear of assimilation to drive them, most Israeli Jews are complacent about their Jewish identities. Many are even apathetic.

* * *

Having grown up in the USA, I have had many an encounter with assimilated Jewish people of all ages and generations – some have been 1st generation Americans and some have lived in the States for multiple generations.

I spent more than a decade, beginning with my earliest college days, trying to find my place among the many models of Jewish community in the USA, in an attempt to buttress my Diaspora ‘Jewishness’. Ultimately, my search led me back to Israel.

And now – here I am – living in Israel, raising my family in Israel. Here I am – observing Shabbat in a more or less traditional manner. Here I am – with access to untold numbers of synagogues, Jewish resources, rabbis, etc. Here I am – within walking distance of the very heart of the ancient Israelite kingdom –

And, increasingly, I am struggling to maintain my motivation – to live a religious Jewish life.

* * *

It’s so damn’d powerful, this experience of living in the Holy Land. It’s actually intoxicating in its mundanity. Being Jewish here – in Israel – in Jerusalem – requires nary a thought, nary an effort.

Even my daughter’s Jewish education is of no serious concern, unlike it would have been elsewhere. While attending her state-secular preschool, my daughter learns about the Torah, the Jewish holidays, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She need never attend an afternoon Hebrew school program, as I did (nor do I think there is such a thing in this country).

Every moment is a Jewish moment here. The notion of assimilation is… laughable.

To be honest, I feel foolish writing about this because I’ve “known” this all my life. “Everyone” knows that being Jewish in Israel is fundamentally different than anywhere else in the world, certainly anyone concerned with Jewish identity. And yet – the actual power of living immersed in Israeli Jewish society is not one that I can convey fully even to the most committed Diaspora Jew. In Israel, ‘Jewishness’ is in my every step and fills my lungs to capacity.

And I am scared. I am scared for myself and especially for my daughter.

What if we succumb to the State and become complacent Israeli Jews?