Friday, December 23, 2011

Is contemporary Jewish chanukah music 'going Greek'?

I love telling the story of Chanukah.  Like so many of our Jewish holidays, it is a wonderful and fascinating study in how rituals and myth and religious experiences come to be.  As we begin our exploration of this holiday, we might think that there is a story that is told, born out of a historical experience, recorded for us in the Books of Maccabees.  We celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek empire in taking back control of Jerusalem and re-dedicating their holy Temple, which had been desecrated through a previous re-dedication to the Greek god, Zeus.  The Books of Maccabees never quite made it into the official canon of Jewish Holy books, and the Rabbis reasons for that were partly a matter of dates but mainly a matter of politics.  That's a longer story, but the result for us is that, while many Jews know the basic story of Chanukah, almost none have read the 'original' in the Books of Maccabees themselves.  The story to be found there (and I'm not going to give the game away) is somewhat different from the folk version that most of us have had passed down to us through the ages.  For a detailed review of the historical evolution of Chanukah, take a look at the essays at

One of the things that is often not emphasized in the folk re-telling of the story is the inner conflict between Jews about the extent to which Greek culture - Hellenism - could appropriately be absorbed into Jewish life, culture and practice.  The Maccabees, it seems, may have been zealous to an extreme in their distaste for Hellenism, while there were plenty of Jews in Jerusalem and beyond who embraced Hellenism and sought ways to maintain their Jewish faith and practice but in a way that enabled them to fully participate in the culture that was unfolding around them.  (see here for a longer essay on this).

Today, we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees, and a miracle of light.  But, if the Maccabees represented the anti-assimilationist, anti-Hellenist stance, what are we to make of the way we celebrate Chanukah today? We sing Maoz Tzur to a melody taken from a medieval German marching tune.  We eat latkes and donuts - neither of which are 'native' to the Middle East, but represent a claiming of central European food traditions onto which we add a Jewish layer by connecting them to the miracle of the oil.  We play dreidle - an ancient gambling game that can be traced back as far as 11th century England, and probably made its way into Jewish life in the 13th or 14th century in Germany.  We added our own set of 4 letters to remember the Chanukah story (Nes Gadol Hayah Sham - a great miracle happened there).

And this year we see so many new Chanukah songs and videos that engage and delight us, all of which borrow in style and, more often, in actual tune, from the secular pop music world.  I've posted some of my favorites from this year below.

So... did the Maccabees really win?  Or have we Jews been 'Going Greek' ever since?
I believe that what we see is true of the way we have absorbed the richness of so many cultures through food, music, rituals and games is, in fact, simply a truth about being human.  This is what we do.  Its not 'good' or 'bad'... it just 'is'.  And the miracle is that we've been doing it since the very first generation of Jews and yet, while the Greek, Babylonian and Roman empires (and many more since) have come and gone, we are still here.  Not in spite of our constant adaptations to the world around us and the cultures we come into contact with but precisely because of them.  Well - that's what I believe.  Feel free to pitch in and add your thoughts in the comments section below.
Happy Chanukah!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Engaging our Teens

cross-posted from the Rabbis Without Borders Blog at

At Congregation B’nai Israel, Bridgeport, CT, I’m blessed with a class of almost 30 eighth graders and we meet weekly on Monday evenings.

Last week, we began a conversation with them that emerged from a desire to highlight the upcoming Reform movement biennial conference. I haven’t attended a Biennial for several years, but they are always exciting opportunities for me to hear how visions are being articulated and what kinds of new ideas are being incubated. Some of that comes from the official program but, as is so often the case with these large conferences, its the one-to-one conversations that we get to have with old friends, and new people that we chance upon that provide some of the great food-for-thought. And praying on Shabbat with approximately 5,000 people (the estimated turnout this year) is a unique experience.

This year, Teen Engagement is one of the key areas of focus, with a special track of the conference dedicated to this work. The old models of top-down movement-led design of a program to be launched and rolled out across the country is gone. Instead, a vision of a much more fluid and dynamic project that involves teens in conversations to co-create new opportunities is the direction we are heading.

I wanted my teens in my eighth-grade class to know about this, and gain a sense of being part of something bigger. We began with an initial trigger video, playing this:

While the context for this video is Israel, and the miracle of returning to the land, we extended the conversation to ask our teens how they respond to an idea of carrying a heritage and being part of ‘the hope’ for what might still be to come. The core of our conversation turned to the challenges they identified to their being engaged in Jewish life and activity and, finally, to some of the creative ideas they might have to respond to those challenges.

I don’t think I can truly do justice to what emerged during the conversation, but it was indeed very hopeful and helpful. We only had limited time, and I’m sure the conversations will continue, but the two areas they focused on was the communal worship experience, and ways of engaging in Jewish culture and ideas that tapped into some of the cultural forms and technologies that they are utilizing in the rest of their lives.

On the worship front, they sought more diverse expressions and experiences, and a musical style that had the energy of the music that some of them knew from Jewish summer camp. While this music has been a major influence on the evolving music of prayer in the Reform movement from the mid-1970s, there is no question that the newest sounds still emerge from camp, and a multi-generational service is not going to be the same experience as an age-specific experience. But the generation-specific sounds are not the only reason why young adult independent minyanim and 20s-30s services in large city-based congregations are proving to be increasingly popular.

My teens also pointed to the way that they are engaged in creating the prayer experience when they are at camp, weaving contemporary themes and readings into the core prayers. This is very much in tune with what we are seeing among our engaged younger generations – a desire for more of a ‘do-it-yourself’ kind of Jewish community, where a Rabbi may offer guidance and support, but is not expected or even wanted to be crafting and leading the whole experience. This kind of inclusive engagement in creating communal prayer experiences is working for teens and young adults beyond the Jewish community too. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran minister in Boulder, CO, leads an emergent Christian community that uses this approach to shape the worship experience. She says that it is important that the worshipers are producing and not consuming. ”Sometimes things are a little ‘clunky’ but its completely worth it because the people are really owning it,” she says.

Beyond the world of synagogue and Jewish worship, my teens had expressed the ‘otherness’ that they sometimes feel in their public school context, where they could name countless examples of ignorance of Judaism or ways in which their sense of Jewish identity was so different to outsider perceptions. But their pride in their identity was strong, and they sought more opportunities to be with teens who ‘get it’. Not necessarily through more face-to-face opportunities – these kids already have heavily scheduled lives – but they brainstormed things like a Jewish Facebook for under-18 Jewish teens who wanted to talk about ‘Jew-stuff’ or a Jewish kind of Second Life where they could experiment with different kinds of virtual Jewish experiences and explore more of Judaism for themselves (these kids haven’t discovered ‘Second Life’ yet, otherwise they might know that there is already quite an extensive area of Israel, synagogues and more already there.

They also loved getting ‘Jewish answers’ to the everyday things … how about a ‘Jewish Siri’?

So much of what I heard in this brief conversation and brainstorm reinforced what we with Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) have been discussing for some time now as we seek to better understand the contemporary cultural contexts in which we passionately share paths to Jewish life. There are start-up organizations, online communities, and worship communities already responding to the next generation, but ‘mainstream’ Jewish institutions and congregations have a ways to go. I’m encouraged by a Biennial conference that is opening to new conversations and forms of engagement. As we respond and co-create an evolutionary Judaism together, within and beyond Jewish movements, we need only ask the questions and we’ll find that our youth have plenty to say.