Hanukkah festivities feel less festive for many families this year amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war and related surge in antisemitism.
Some Jews are asking themselves whether it’s safe to publicly identify as Jewish this holiday season and wondering how to adjust their typical celebrations in response to the war.
Adam Kulbersh, an actor in Los Angeles, told The New York Times that he nearly didn’t put a Hanukkah menorah in the window of his home this week due to safety concerns. He decided to move forward with the religious tradition after a non-Jewish friend offered to take part, as well.
“Hanukkah does feel different this year,” he said. “The massive spike in antisemitism has many of us scared.”
As Kulbersh noted, antisemitic incidents have become more common since Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7 prompted the Israel Defense Forces to launch counterattacks in Gaza. Some who support the Palestinian cause have taken out their anger against Israel on Jewish communities in the U.S.
“From Oct. 7 through Nov. 20, the ADL Center on Extremism documented 1,402 antisemitic incidents (including at least 280 on college campuses) across the United States — a 315% increase from the 338 incidents reported during the same time frame in 2022,” Religion Unplugged reported, citing an ADL Center spokesman.
Since the Israel-Hamas war broke out, there’s also been an uptick in violence against Muslims. U.S. officials recently warned both Jewish and Muslim groups to be on guard against terrorism, according to Reuters.
“I’ve never seen a time where ... so many different threats are all elevated, all at exactly the same time. That’s what makes this environment that we’re in now so fraught,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray to a Senate committee this week, per Reuters.
But in spite of their fear, some Jews are more determined than ever to enjoy their Hanukkah celebrations, which began Thursday. This year’s heartbreaks bring deeper meaning to the Hanukkah story, said Gayle Pomerantz, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom, to The Associated Press.
“As Jews, we’re oriented toward hope. No matter how dark things seem, we can find light,” she said.
The Hanukkah story
The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah commemorates an ancient military victory, according to Religion Unplugged.
“Jews who refused to assimilate to pagan conquerors, the Maccabees, reclaimed their temple that had been defiled by the Greeks and relit its eternal lamp with their last tiny bit of oil. That this oil lasted for eight days was a ‘miracle,’ an act of God rewarding Jewish faithfulness,” the article said.
The Hanukkah miracle is not mentioned in the Bible. Instead, it’s recounted in a later collection of writings called the Apocrypha, per ReformJudaism.org.
“Hanukkah, which means ‘dedication,’ is the festival that commemorates the purification and rededication of the Temple following the Greek occupation of that holy place. Today, the holiday reminds Jews to rededicate themselves to keeping alive the flame of Jewish religion, culture, and peoplehood so that it may be passed on to the next generation,” the article said.
How is Hanukkah celebrated?
Although Hanukkah is likely the most discussed Jewish holiday in the U.S. due to its proximity to Christmas, it’s considered a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, according to Religion Unplugged. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, known collectively as the High Holidays, are more theologically significant.
Still, Hanukkah is widely celebrated. Jews in the U.S. and around the world light the menorah as they recount the Hanukkah story, and they put it in the window or some other place that’s visible to passersby in order to share its light with others.
“Displaying the Hanukkah menorah in the window is a time-honored tradition,” said Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committee’s director of contemporary Jewish life, to the Deseret News in 2019. “The message is a very inspiring one for America as a whole, about religious freedom and tolerance and Jews having the right to their own fate.”
The enduring nature of the tradition is one reason why Jews who have safety concerns this year hesitate to put their menorah somewhere out of sight.
“It’s incredible to have to hide who we are,” said David Wolf, the president of the Shul of Bal Harbour who has lived near it for 25 years, to The Associated Press.
Motti Seligson, spokesman for Chabad, an arm of the Lubavitch Jewish community that sponsors menorah lighting events across the country, told Religion Unplugged that he wants families to recognize the unintended consequences of giving into their fears.
“For our children to see us not put the menorah in the window, to hide our Jewishness, could be more detrimental. Receding is letting the antisemites win,” he said.
The New York Times reported this week that most public Hanukkah events, like community menorah-lighting ceremonies, took place this year as usual, but noted that, in addition to safety issues, some people raised political concerns.
“In this specific historic moment,” a large menorah in a public space could be seen as “a political symbol, not a religious symbol,” said Josh Slotnick, a county commissioner in Missoula who is Jewish, according to The New York Times.
In addition to hosting or attending menorah-focused events, Jews celebrate Hanukkah by eating traditional foods, exchanging small gifts and playing dreidel games.
“The foods at the heart of the holiday are sufganiyot and latkes. The Israeli treat sufganiyot is often described as a cross between a beignet and a jelly donut. Latkes are potato pancakes often eaten with applesauce or sour cream. Both treats are fried in oil as a way to commemorate the ‘miracle of the oil’ that happened during the Maccabean revolt,” according to NBC 4 New York.
When is Hanukkah?
The timing of Hanukkah is based on the Hebrew calendar, so it does not take place on the same dates each year. It typically falls in late November or early December, according to The Hill.
This year, Hanukkah started the evening of Thursday, Dec. 7, and will last until the evening of Friday, Dec. 15.