When I was very young, my grandmother passed down Jewish traditions to me — and with them, warnings about anti-Semitism.
Along with lessons on Jewish culture and celebrations, she often told my sister and me that anti-Semitism would continue throughout our lives. While it ebbed and flowed, she said, it never ceased.
Before this Hanukkah, my grandmother’s dire prediction came true again, this time shaking our own family. On an otherwise ordinary day, my 11-year-old nephew Riley rode the bus home from school in his Wisconsin town. An older boy approached him. “What’s the difference between a Boy Scout and a Jew?” the child asked Riley. He answered his own riddle: “A Boy Scout comes back from the camps.”
On Hanukkah, which is called “the festival of lights,” we are summoned “to publicize the miracle,” to light up our homes and our lives with Jewish teachings. Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, its menorah lit with a tiny bit of oil that miraculously lasted eight days after the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian-Greek Empire.
As I grew from a young child, first lured to the menorah by the opportunity to hold fire in my hands, I came to love the Hanukkah story. Every menorah, its shape reminiscent of the limbs of a rooted tree, embodied a narrative of light. Every candle burned with the miracle of overcoming.
Today, the celebration of this holiday, as of all our holidays, is bittersweet. With recent anti-Semitic violence, including deadly attacks on synagogues, it is inarguably a difficult time for Jewish Americans. I am reminded of the recent surge in anti-Semitism each time I greet the armed guard stationed behind a fortified gate outside my synagogue.
On the same day that my young nephew faced that anti-Semitic taunt on the school bus, I stood a thousand miles away, rocking my infant daughter in my arms at our synagogue in Charlottesville, Virginia. Nursery-school students swayed to Jewish music with abandon.
At the front of the room, Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin strummed her guitar as she led the school in song. “Shabbat is here, Shabbat is here, I’m so glad that Shabbat is here,” the children sang in unison. My 5-year-old son, Sami, grasped the hand of his baby sister, then kissed her softly on the temple as he curled his small body, moved by the melody, into mine.
I often tell friends that I participate in this Shabbat ritual for him, but it is really for myself. There is so much light in children lost in song.
Two years ago, our synagogue made the news when neo-Nazis walked through the streets of Charlottesville chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Congregants attending the weekly Shabbat service exited through the back of the building, a Torah scroll rescued from the Holocaust cradled in their arms.
My family moved to Charlottesville soon afterward, and I was, admittedly, afraid of what the city had in store for us. Yet this synagogue quickly became for me, as it has for many others, a place of community and renewed spirituality.
In music, harmony is created by the uniting of voices in a single song. And I wonder whether we, in the uniting of voices, can find harmony in our lives. Can we teach our children to navigate the dual reality bestowed on them at birth: that anti-Semitism is very much alive, and that they are stronger because of, not despite, their Jewish heritage?
I believe we can, by looking to our traditions. On Hanukkah, for instance, we are tasked in an act of rededication to one another, an act of overcoming.
As my son grows older, we slowly open all of these collective wounds embedded in Jewish history, from the exodus from Egypt to the Holocaust. Yet with this knowledge, we do not give our children pain alone. We also give them power to tend to wounds, through ritual and history, camaraderie and song.
As I sit with Sami in our synagogue sanctuary, its bright windows pieced together in shards of glass softened by the tides, I believe that in remembrance, and with it, our rededication to one another, our collective overcoming stands a chance.
I tell Sami about Riley’s incident on the school bus. He is moved by his cousin’s suffering — not because he is Jewish, but because he is human.
This year on Hanukkah, our children, like us before them, will have fire in their hands. They will learn, and we along with them, to wield this fire, in all its beauty and its potential for pain. This is, I realize, a metaphor for our Jewish experience in many ways.
We choose the beauty, even when scalded. And our traditions dress our wounds.
This Hanukkah, I will seek beauty in the shape of our children, participating in these traditions as they stand with and for one another. They are our proof of the light, the miraculous in this world. As they grow up, they will hold the wisdom of our stories, and they will hold the hope of happier endings for us all.
They may face hostility, even hate. But we will join them as they raise their voices together, in resistance and in song.
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