Despite a rise in hate, this Hanukkah choose hope

Rabbi Zalman Bluming lights a menorah during a Hanukkah kick-off party in December 12009,.
Rabbi Zalman Bluming lights a menorah during a Hanukkah kick-off party in December 12009,. tlong@newsobserver

This Hanukkah, American Jews will be forced to ask themselves a painful question.

Should they place the Hanukkah lamp (hannukiah) in the window or on the kitchen table?

To some, the question might seem insignificant, the difference of a few feet. But for the Jewish community, and perhaps even for our country, the answer is as important as ever.

Two thousand years ago, the Rabbis mandated that the hanukkiah be placed in public view so that passersby would be reminded of the miracles of Hanukkah. Namely, how a group of courageous Jews rose up against their Hasmonean oppressors and, upon victory, lit the Jerusalem Temple’s lamp with one night’s worth of oil that ended up lasting for eight.

But the Sages knew that not every society would welcome such a public display of Jewish pride, so they offered a stipulation. “In a time of danger, one may place the hanukkiah on the table.”

Growing up in Maryland, some of my fondest family memories were of our Hanukkah celebrations: lighting the candles, singing holiday songs, spinning tops and eating potato pancakes. The hanukkiah was always placed in the window.

Not that there wasn’t a reason for concern. My experiences of antisemitism were infrequent but unforgettable.

Like the time in high school when three older students pushed me up against a locker, threw a few pennies at my feet and taunted me, “Let’s see if the Jew-boy picks them up!”

Or the time when my mother, a public school teacher in a more rural county, walked into the school entryway one morning to see spray-painted above the arch, “Solomon is a Jew!”

Or the time when a kid on my soccer team told me during a break in practice, “Do you know that you are going to Hell?”

While painful, these incidents were small blips in a childhood filled with an overwhelming sense of acceptance. Whenever someone attacked, there were righteous non-Jews who stepped forward and assured us that they would not stand idly by while their neighbors bled. Their acts embodied the best of the American spirit.

But ever since Charlottesville, when unhooded white supremacists, marching forth yelling “Jews will not replace us,” committed heinous acts of violence and received approbation from some political leaders, I, for the first time, have taken serious pause.

I do not doubt that the vast majority of Americans, as polls consistently show, vehemently reject antisemitism and welcome the Jewish community as part and parcel of American life. In the face of the recent uptick in attacks, the support of local clergy and religious organizations has been nothing short of angelic. As one Muslim friend expressed in an email, “In the wake of all of the recent anti-Semitic … acts of bigotry, I want to let you know that my heart truly aches … May God protect you from hate and discrimination of any type.”

Receiving notes like this, we know you have our back.

But I also do not doubt that there is a sliver of American society that bears hatred for all minority groups: Jews, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, among others.

In this current climate, putting the hanukkiah in the window is not simply an expression of one community’s religious devotion. It is a statement about the kind of America in which we all wish to live.

The late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a survivor of Auschwitz, once shared how he celebrated Hanukkah with his father in the camps. The young Hugo was shocked to see his father melt down his small ration of margarine to use as a wick for the first night. He chastised his father: How could he use their precious food and risk their lives simply to observe a holiday?

His father responded, “My child, we know you can live three days without water. You can live three weeks without food. But you cannot live for three minutes without hope.”

This week, when you drive through Raleigh and chance upon a hanukkiah flickering in the window, you will now know that the family residing there chose hope. For the sake of the Jewish community, for the sake of all minority groups and for the sake of our nation, may that hope radiate from sea to shining sea.

Rabbi Eric Solomon, the spiritual leader of Beth Meyer Synagogue, serves on the national board of Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

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