Perhaps it was appropriate that on the Jewish festival of Shavu’ot, May 25, 2015, the ever-popular game show “Jeopardy!” featured one of the funniest responses in its history. The very last answer (Final Jeopardy) read by host Alex Trebek was: “A Christian Hymn and a Jewish holiday hymn are both titled this, also the name of a 2009 Tony-nominated musical.” In accordance with the rules, the contestant’s response was framed as a question: “What is Kinky Boots?” The incorrect response was greeted with chuckling from the host and laughter from the audience.
What made this response so funny was that is was completely out of character. The contestant, Choyon Manjrekar, was a returning champion and one of the finest players on the show. He also went on to win the game. By the next day, the media were all over this story. The video posted on Youtube went viral. Press reports in USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, CNN, and other newspapers and media across the world were quick to point out that the correct answer was “Rock of Ages. (“Kinky Boots” was a musical written by Cyndi Lauper and has nothing at all to do with Jewish or Christian holidays.) “Rock of Ages” was a Christian hymn penned by Augustus Topaldy in the eighteenth century. “Ma’oz Tzur” is the older Jewish hymn for Hanukkah probably written in the thirteenth century by a certain Mordechai, perhaps Mordechai ben Isaac HaLevi. “Maoz Tzur” was translated into English and rendered “Rock of Ages” in the early twentieth century hymnals favored by Reform Jews.
I did not watch television that holiday night. I was still observing the Festival of the Giving of the Torah. But I wonder how many observant Jews, if asked the same question, would have gotten it right. My guess is few or none. First, observant Jews would have little knowledge of Christian hymns. And second, observant Jews would not know “Ma’oz Tzur” as “Rock of Ages.”
Thus the real story here is not the error. Neither is the story about the fact that there are billions more people in this world untouched by “Judeo-Christian” culture than those that are. So it should not be surprising or humorous to observe that “Rock of Ages” is not the well-known hymn Westerners might think it to be. The real story here is that a classic Hanukkah song is no longer known by its Hebrew name. “Ma’oz Tzur” refers to the strength and confidence God provides his people at all times and particularly when in distress. Applied to the Maccabean revolt, the hymn recounts that despite the attempts of the Syrian Greeks to undermine Judaism, God’s saving power brought us victory and with victory, the rededication of the Temple. Hanukkah recounts resistance to assimilation: the struggle to retain Jewish identity despite the pressures to conform. It is not just the message of the hymn that matters. It’s very language matters. Hebrew is the language of the Jewish people. Ironically, those who refer to “Ma’oz Tzur” as “Rock of Ages” surrender one of the values for which Hanukkah is celebrated: the retention of our unique Jewish identity.
The war against Hellenism was won more than two thousand years ago but the battle for Jewish identity continues. The outcome is still uncertain. If the ultimate victory is to be won, it will take more rededication. It will take a concerted effort to re-affirm the centrality of Hebrew.