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!

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