Maybe it’s because I grew up listening to Xmas carols. Maybe it’s because what passes for Jewish music these days is frequently Jewish words grafted onto pop or rock instrumentals. Or maybe it’s because the perpetually waning enthusiasm I see in our young people today might be stemmed if we helped them tap into their neshomas rather than strengthening their connection with secular culture.
I suppose it’s really all three and more. But the bottom line is this: the one thing I despise about Chanukah is the pervasive, annoying, and distinctly un-Jewish niggun the whole world sings to Maoz Tzur – evoking not the heroism of the Hasmoneans but the flaky ambivalence of “Rock of Ages” and the red-suited jolliness of “Good King Wenceslas.”
It should come as no surprise that our popular Maoz Tzur sounds so goyish. It’s been traced back to an old German drinking song, and before that to the 16th Century hymns of the Benedictine Monks. I guess it fits right in with the inescapable practice of gift-giving, also borrowed from Christian society.
I know there are those who don’t object to borrowing Gentile melodies for our niggunim. But why can’t we borrow something that’s worth borrowing? Why do we have to embrace a tune that sounds like it should be accompanied by fat carolers sporting white cotton beards? And if we have to sing it, why can’t we limit it to Maoz Tzur and not repeat it endlessly in Lecha Dodi, Birkas HaChodesh, Shabbos morning kedusha, and twice in Hallel?
Above all, why doesn’t it bother us that on this of all holidays, the season when we celebrate the integrity of Jewish culture, we define our celebration by embracing the culture of Eisav, the culture that continues to dominate us in our final exile and which stands between us and the coming of Moshiach?
What’s that? You don’t know any other niggun? Call me, and I’ll hum a few for your over the phone.
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Originally Published December 2008