With hate crimes on the rise, the relatively minor festival of Chanukah has grown in importance. The Festival of Lights celebrates religious freedom. It is a holiday based on historical fact – that of a rebellion of the Jewish people against their Syrian-Greek oppressors that began in 167 BCE (Before the Common Era).
The story goes that Judah Maccabee and his brothers, the sons of Mattathias the priest, captured the Temple in Jerusalem that had been defiled by the Greeks. The liberators cleansed the Temple and rededicated it in 164 BCE. However, the single container of oil they found to light the candelabrum in the Temple was just enough to last one day. The miracle, according to rabbinic tradition, is that the oil lasted for eight days.
On this holiday we light the candles to dispel the darkness of ignorance and hatred. We remember our liberation and give thanks for Heaven’s divine intervention.
The eight-day celebration of Chanukah is observed each year in late November to late December. It falls at different times each year on the Gregorian calendar because Jewish holidays follow a lunar calendar. Chanukah begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev; which this year is Dec. 2. The holiday ends Dec. 10. A candle is lit after sunset each night on a nine-branched candelabra called a menorah.
In the past four years, hate crimes have risen in the U.S., a significant number of them spurred by religious bias, according to a recent report released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There has been a 37 percent spike in anti-Semitic crimes between 2016 and 2017, according to an article in Washington Jewish Week.
So, like the Maccabees who fought back against a much larger army and won, most Jews today would rather stand up to similar destructive forces.
My daughter told me she has met several older Jewish women born and raised in rural Alabama and Mississippi – they are reluctant to admit their religious and ethnic identity to non-Jews, fearing an adverse reaction. Rachel told me she refuses to live in fear, and is open about who she is.
My sister has experienced religious bias, even in her home state of California, a state known for its citizenry’s liberal stances on numerous issues. Danielle shares my daughter’s perspective. As do I.
Years ago, when my husband and I were visiting his German Oma during the holidays in her small town near Speyer, Germany, I placed my menorah in the window and prepared to light it. Oma became agitated, moved it away from where her neighbors could see, and placed the menorah in a room where the windows were shuttered. Tradition dictates that menorahs be seen. Her fear came from what she had experienced during World War II. I believe she saw Jewish friends and neighbors taken away. I wasn’t about to argue with her. I felt then that her peace of mind was more important than fulfilling a tradition.
Here, back home in the states, I have no hesitancy about placing my menorah in the window facing our street. Even with the recent mass shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue, and other hate crimes against Jews on the rise, I refuse to hide.
Chanukah is a joyous holiday. Along with kindling the lights and telling the story of the brave Maccabees, there’s prayer, songs, games (dreidel anyone?), and food – so much food! If I allow fear to keep me from this holiday, it could keep me from every Jewish holiday, every treasured observance. And that would be, in effect, letting the haters win.
So…I will unpack my menorahs and dreidels (four-sided tops), decorate the house, buy potatoes to make the latkes, and recite blessings over the candles. The following blessing is said on the first night of Chanukah only, and pretty much sums up being thankful for religious freedom in a world where some people continue to hate anyone different from them: “Blessed are You, Lord our G d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.”
Etheridge is the editor of the Coastal Courier. She and her husband have two grown children, the most beautiful granddaughter in the world, a teddy bear of a rescue dog, a grumpy old cat that guards the house, and a young agile cat that pesters the grumpy one.