Ask any adult about their memories of Chanukah, and you’ll find that, deep down, the images they carry of this wintry eight-day holiday are inevitably linked to their childhoods.

My own memories of Chanukah are inextricably and forever associated with my father’s singing of “Maoz Tzur.” My father, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe HaKohen Friedman, of blessed memory, didn’t sing Maoz Tzur the way it is taught in today’s Hebrew schools. His version was the traditional lengthy one. Both melodic and mournful, this version is replete with crashing crescendos and lilting liturgy.

My father learned this melody from his father, who heard it at the Rama Synagogue in Krakow. My father taught the melody to his children, and it became as beloved to us as it was to him. Growing up, the highlight of our Chanukah (besides receiving a shiny silver dollar) was gathering around the menorah and joining in as he masterfully sang his Maoz Tzur. My six brothers and one sister are all blessed with the ability to carry a tune, and the resulting chorus was beautiful indeed.

As the eldest in the family, I was the first to get married and move away from home. That first Chanukah as a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Detroit, I was homesick for my father’s Maoz Tzur. I called my mother, may she live and be well, and she suggested that I stay on the phone and listen as my father lit the menorah.

Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Friedman (1924-2004)
Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Friedman (1924-2004)

And so, a tradition was born. Every Chanukah, usually on the fifth night, I would call “home,” and my family would listen in as my father sang Maoz Tzur so magnificently, accompanied by my siblings. As the years went by and there were, thank G‑d, grandchildren and great-grandchildren spending Chanukah with Zaidy and Bubby, more voices joined in the singing … and the chorus grew.

During the later years when my father’s health began to steadily decline, I knew that when I made that phone call on the fifth night, some things would be the same, but some things would be different.

My father would need some help getting to the tall silver menorah. A grandson would guide his hand to light the wick in the oil cylinder, and would gently prompt him as he recited the blessings. But then, when the flames were kindled and illuminating the room, someone would say, “Zaidy, let’s sing Maoz Tzur.”

My father would look momentarily perplexed, but then he would furrow his brow in concentration and tap into the memory that was forever imprinted on his psyche, and he would slowly begin to sing, “Maoz tzur yeshuosi, lecha na’eh l’shabeach...”

The family would let him sing alone for a few moments, and then his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren would add their voices—softly at first, but becoming ever louder. And when the final crescendo had died down, and the last lyrics had been sung, there would be tears in my father’s eyes, and he would smile.

During the last year of his life, we arranged a Chanukah party for my father in his nursing home. He was very frail and hardly spoke at all. But we were determined that he would celebrate Chanukah.

That year, my brothers made a professional recording of several of the melodies that we always sang around my father’s table, including Maoz Tzur (listen below). We wanted my father to hear it often in preparation for the party. So we bought state-of the-art headphones, put them gently on my father’s head, and let him listen to Maoz Tzur as recorded by his sons.

On the morning of the party, several of us were visiting our father, and we reminded him again that it was Chanukah. Suddenly, to our complete amazement, he began singing Maoz Tzur. We held our breath as he slowly but beautifully completed two stanzas of the song and then fell silent again.

That night, at the party, my father did not participate in the singing. But it was okay. We had already witnessed our Chanukah miracle.