Hanukkah - An Ancient Holiday with Modern Significance


Hanukkah is a celebration of freedom. It falls on the 25th of Kislev but since the Jewish calendar does not align perfectly with the Gregorian one (the calendar used in the western world), its date seems to move around. Generally it falls sometime in December. Like most of our holidays, its roots are found in historical events.

Thousands of years ago, a Greek-Syrian king named Antiochus decided that the Jews living in his kingdom must abandon their customs and instead dress, worship, and eat like his people did.

His armies destroyed the holy temple in Jerusalem, filling it with idols of Greek gods and making it unsuitable for use. Idols - any graven images of God - are explicitly forbidden in Judaism. Jews were forced to assimilate by adopting Greek customs or risk punishment or even death.

Some Jews, refusing to abandon their own heritage, banded together to fight back. Because they were small in number and not equipped with weapons of war like the Greek soldiers, they had to rely on clever tactics. Miraculously, after two years of war, this small army managed to beat back the Syrian one and reclaim the temple.

The word Hanukkah actually means "dedication," referencing the temple being made clean and holy again for the Jewish people.

On Hanukkah, we celebrate the right to be who we are without fear of forced assimilation or persecution. And increasingly, that feels more necessary than ever.

Robert Downen writes, “For years, extremism experts and historians have sounded alarms about rising antisemitism and what they say are clear warning signs of emerging fascism and extremist violence. Their warnings have only grown more dire as influential American politicians, media personalities and celebrities routinely amplify antisemitic conspiracies that have historically led to the killing of Jews.”

Social influencers like Kanye (Ye) West have abused their platforms, spreading hateful messages to their millions of followers. Elon Musk, who pledged to reinstate blocked accounts once he took over Twitter, had to walk that back and remove Ye from his platform after a particularly egregious antisemitic post. Ye also recently gave an interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, praising Hitler.

In New York City, where Jews are better represented in the population than anywhere else in the United States, antisemitic hate crimes rose by 125% last month - 45 separate incidents in November alone, as reported by the NYPD. Nationally, antisemitic crimes have been on the rise for the past five years. According to NPR, “These record breaking numbers present as part of a consistent, five year upswing in the number of antisemitic incidents, unprecedented in the ADL's three plus decades of data collection.”

Antisemitism is not always blatantly violent - rocks through windows or swastikas drawn on store fronts. Antisemitism is evidenced in the denial of the Holocaust. It’s in coded language like “New World Order,” “blood libel,” “globalist,” all meant to reinforce hateful rhetoric. Words like these far too often lead to violence when they are repeated often enough and angrily enough.

So this year, when Jews continue this thousands-of-years-old tradition and light the Hanukkah candles to symbolically bring warmth and goodness into the world, we need our non-Jewish friends and neighbors to remain vigilant. We fought, and won, for the right to live as Jews and not to abandon our own beliefs in order to blend in with the surrounding culture. In 2022 the need to hold tight to tradition is as strong as ever.

Hanukkah begins at sunset on Sunday, December 18th.

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