I first learned about Hanukkah in third grade, when a Northwood Elementary School classmate of my sister’s named Ann Zeidman did a presentation about it. Other than the eight days of gift-giving, which was intriguing for a 9-year-old, I remembered that it was a holiday about oil that miraculously lasted longer than expected. That fascinated me. How had that happened? Was it real? And could a miracle really shine light into a time of terrible darkness?
It’s 42 years later, in a wildly disjointed time of open hate and violence, and the Jewish community is facing a renewed period of darkness. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were 2,717 antisemitic acts in the U.S. in 2021, a 34% increase from the previous year and the highest number since 1979, when the organization began tracking such events.
I wondered if the Hanukkah story of the miraculous light that assisted the Maccabee army in protecting the Temple of Jerusalem resonated even more this year. I knew I had to start with my original Hanukkah teacher, now Ann Zeidman-Karpinski, living in Oregon. She can’t remember how she came to do that presentation, but as one of very few white kids and even fewer Jewish ones at our school, she thinks a teacher must have approached her about it.
“My parents weren’t religious. We were almost atheists. My mother used to say Hanukkah was a minor holiday that the capitalists had focused on because it was near Christmas,” she remembered. Still, her mom took the opportunity seriously, “writing and rewriting that speech. She must have typed it!”
To Ann, Hanukkah has taken on new significance about family tradition, and in this time, the illumination seems appropriate. “I am glad that people are using this as shedding some light, and hopefully reminding Jewish people that we can be part of the solution and remembering that this could happen to anyone, at any time,” she told me.
Hanukkah may not be a major religious event, but it fits neatly into efforts to spread the word about antisemitism, said Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. In the last two years, the ADL has developed a campaign called Shine A Light, which uses the story to educate about anti-Jewish incidents and sentiment.
Recent events have caused Jewish communities to increase security and awareness around schools, synagogues and other places, and “it’s definitely stressful,” Libit said. “It definitely gets to be a distraction from the joys of our faith. The actual story of the Maccabees is so powerful at this time.”
The wave of hate that’s gotten national and international attention in the past two and a half years, including anti-Jewish, anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ speech, might have surprised people, but it’s not new. Hate never went anywhere. It just seems louder now.
“Our eyes are open. It’s always been out there, but it’s been given a mouthpiece,” said Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, executive director of Agudath Israel of Maryland, which represents local Jewish communities, especially the Orthodox community, in governmental matters.
He agrees that Hanukkah is important for its focus on historic and current triumph over danger and persecution, “appreciating the salvation of 2,000 years ago and the many salvations sustained since then. In challenging times, it’s always nice to reflect on how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to light the menorah and celebrate with family.”
My late husband Scott, who was Jewish, used to say that most of the observances of his faith, from Purim to Passover, could be summed up as: “They tried to kill us, they didn’t and now we eat.” That’s perhaps an oversimplification, but Libit agrees that survival is at the core of Judaism.
“So much of our faith is about remembering the major events, like Moses escaping slavery and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, remembering the Holocaust each spring and Kristallnacht” — the 1938 reign of terror on Jewish homes and businesses by the Nazis — each fall. Hanukkah is one more piece of that. Pain. Survival. Light. Celebration.
Hanukkah’s connection to current events is also on the mind of Baltimore’s Becky Mossing, who works at her alma mater, Baltimore School for the Arts. She “married a nice Catholic man” but raised her twin 19-year-old daughters in her Jewish faith. Despite the commercialism, “it’s such a beautiful holiday. My daughters are probably more aware than most of their peers about what’s happening, and it’s a concern. When we light those candles, whether it’s for Hanukkah or on Shabbat [the Sabbath], it’s about light.”
That light can be all-encompassing. Ann, who taught me at 9 that Hanukkah was about illuminating even the most dire of circumstances, did the same for me as I sought my own Hanukkah miracle in a time of darkness. A couple of years after Scott died, in an effort to connect myself and our son to his traditions, I haltingly read the Hebrew prayers, lit the menorah we’d gotten as a wedding present and proudly posted the photos on Facebook.
About 3,000 miles away, she saw the pictures and noted the sweet gesture. She also noticed that I’d lit the candles from the wrong side of the menorah. Rookie mistake.
“You were so happy, but I was like ‘That doesn’t look right,’” she said. “I almost didn’t want to tell you, because you were so proud of it. But I called you and was like ‘Turn the menorah around!’”
It was a little embarrassing, but I appreciated her kindness as an appropriate Hanukkah gesture, a mitzvah, or deliberate act of kindness. A way to spread light.
We all need that now. Let there be light.