Hanukkah’s celebratory light dispels darkness
STAMFORD — Saul Cohen and Jewish Family Service officials had a hard decision to make last month, a decision similar to the one Jewish families are mulling for the first time in recent history as Hanukkah approaches — whether to hide in fear, or stand up and be seen.
The celebratory eight-day festival of lights, symbolized by the candles of the menorah,
arrives Sunday night amid a darkening climate of antiSemitism in America. Jewish families often put their menorahs in the window to showcase their faith. Families often feel the spiritual need to be conspicuous about a Jewish tradition such as Hanukkah, which calls for celebrations to be public.
Let the decision made around a free rabbinical lecture named for Cohen held Nov. 8 at the Ferguson Library be your guide. The morning of the lecture, a large swastika was discovered outside the library, along with the words “good luck.” The discovery sent sponsors pondering whether to cancel the event or publicize what they found. What if attendees would feel unsafe?
They didn’t cancel. The speech, featuring Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, was given to a larger-than-normal crowd of 250 people, Cohen said. Cohen said he will proudly display his menorah and hopes all others do.
“I’m abhorred that people might feel they need to” hide their religion, he said. “We don’t hide. We have to stand out.”
“No question in my mind, the Torah says we should be a light to our nation, not keep it to ourselves.”
For local leaders in the Jewish community, Hanukkah couldn’t come at a better time.
“There’s no question that we’re putting our menorahs out,” says Rabbi Ita Paskind of Norwalk’s Congregation Beth El. “In fact, we are doubling down being out and proud about putting our religion on display.”
At the same time, there is no denying that some families are being pulled in opposing directions this holiday season, five weeks since the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in American history at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
On the one hand, some families feel the practical need to be circumspect and conscientious about safety, with anti-Semitic hate crimes on the rise.
On the other hand, families feel the spiritual need to be conspicuous about a Jewish tradition such as Hanukkah, which calls for celebrations to be public.
“I have been getting a lot of calls from people who are worried, asking ‘Is there a danger?’” says Andy Friedland, associate director of the Connecticut chapter of the Anti-Defamation League. “But there is something to be said about saying ‘We won’t go into hiding, and we will be proud of who we are.’”
At stake is how free families feel they can be at a time in America when more people are being targeted for living their lives as themselves.
The slaying of 11 people and wounding of seven others at the Tree of Life synagogue in October by a gunman who told police “All these Jews need to die,” punctuated an alarming set of recent statics about the rise of hate crimes in America.
An annual FBI report in November showed a 37 percent spike in crimes against Jews and Jewish institutions in 2017, as part of an overall 17 percent jump in hate crimes, for example.
The ADL followed that report with a study documenting a rise in anti-immigrant extremism in America over the last decade, and a correlating rise in anti-Semitism.
Locally, swastikas have caused consternation in Wilton and Ridgefield. And in Woodbridge, educators are cracking down on what Jewish students called a climate of anti-Semitism at Amity High School.
Holiday of defiance
As a holiday, Hanukkah is not as important on the Jewish calendar as the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And on the popular culture level, Hanukkah is usually associated with the dreidel spinning toy, or traditional treats such as potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts.
But the holiday is rooted in deeper traditions of resilience and deliverance. It dates 2,000 years ago, when Jewish patriots liberated the temple in Jerusalem from oppressors, and a menorah stayed lit for eight days on only one day’s supply of oil.
“Hanukkah is all about light: we kindle the light of the menorah because a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness,” said Rabbi Shlame Landa, of Chabad of Fairfield. “Of course, we have to take all safety precautions and take security seriously, but at the same time we cannot go into hiding – it is especially important for young people to see this.”
Chabad of Fairfield is among the scores of Jewish organizations and houses of worship here, across the United States and in 100 countries throughout the world that will host public Hanukkah events, starting at sundown on Sunday.
At Chabad Lubavitch of Greenwich, Rabbi Yossi Deren agreed that the public menorah lighting dimension of the holiday was important to preserve, noting that before a movement to elevate Hanukkah’s profile in the 1970s the 1980s, it was little known.
“What happened was every Jewish man, woman and child could look up in their city or their small town and see the shining light of the menorah brightening the dark winter night, literally,” Deren said. “Figuratively, what that did was spread the message of Hanukkah about the power of light to dispel the darkness.”
Chabad of Fairfield’s Rabbi Shlame Landa attaches an oil lamp to a menorah built of Legos for Hanukkah, which begins at sunset Sunday.
A menorah built entirely out of Legos is on display at Chabad of Fairfield in preparation to celebrate Hanukkah in Fairfield on Friday. The Lego menorah will be lit on Sunday as part of the Hanukkah celebration in downtown Fairfield.
Chabad of Fairfield's Rabbi Shlame Landa places a magnetic menorah atop his vehicle in preparation to celebrate Hanukkah on Friday.