I was thinking about Hanukkah a lot this week, and that's not something I usually do. Don't get me wrong: it's a perfectly nice holiday, and I enjoy it-- although attempts to turn it into the "Jewish Christmas" aren't very helpful. But it's actually a minor holiday in Judaism, and I think about Passover or Jewish New Year much more. Lately, however, Hanukkah is in the news, and not in a good way: I'm saddened to hear that some cities where they used to have a public lighting of the menorah are canceling those events, and others are hiring extra police to protect the celebrants. Hanukkah didn't used to be controversial. It's a small but happy holiday-- about miracles, about gratitude to God, and about religious freedom. But now, a lot of Jews are afraid to publicly observe it... and that's sad too.
Truth be told, the culture at this time of year is seldom Hanukkah-oriented. Everywhere we go, all we can see are Christmas decorations, Christmas ornaments, and Christmas displays. Okay fine, Christmas is a major holiday in an overwhelmingly Christian country, and Hanukkah comes at a different time each year. But even when the dates align, most merchants and most civic spaces tend to treat Hanukkah like it doesn't exist. In a few cities with large Jewish populations, there might be a public menorah lighting, but for the most part, Jews observe Hanukkah at home, lighting their menorah near a window, a symbol of shining the light of hope into a world darkened by prejudice.
But this year, prejudice seems to be winning. The Israel-Hamas war has brought out angry protesters who chant slogans that are not just pro-Palestinian but often anti-Jewish. I don't understand how screaming at the Jewish owner of a falafel restaurant in Philadelphia is going to get the war to stop. I don't understand how vilifying random Jews-- as if we are all somehow to blame for what the Israeli government is doing-- is an effective strategy for bringing about a more peaceful world. And I absolutely don't understand how shutting down Hanukkah observances (or any other Jewish holiday celebrations) will bring us any closer to mutual respect and understanding.
And we need mutual respect now more than ever. I read statements from my friends on the right that the Jews need to be converted and that America is really a Christian nation (no we don't, and no it isn't). I read statements from my friends on the left that Jews are responsible for Palestinian suffering (I am not responsible for what the government of Israel does; I don't live there. I support a two-state solution and I always have. And as an American, I totally reject Islamophobia. But I also wonder why there is so little anger at the many, many Muslim-majority nations, especially those run by autocrats, where they seem fine about having lots of noisy anti-Israel demonstrations, but do very little to actually welcome Palestinian refugees, and even less to make life better for them).
As for me, I want to live in a world where it's safe for me to wear my Jewish star without someone berating me about what they think my politics are. I want to live in a world where people of all faiths, and no faiths, can respect each other's views and then go grab some lunch together. I want to live in a world where the haters don't win-- no matter how noisy they are. Now more than ever, we don't need a war on Hanukkah. We need to eat some potato pancakes and some jelly donuts together. And it might be nice if everyone put up a menorah, a symbol of taking a stand for tolerance and respect over hate and bigotry. Even teddy bears agree: the world could use more kindness and the world could use more friendship, especially among people with different views. So, as Hanukkah begins, I'm hoping you will join me in bringing a little more light into a world that needs it. Happy Hanukkah!