Every winter, my grandmother Rose would devote significant time to polishing her beautiful silver menorah. The task was tedious, requiring a great deal of elbow grease, yet she worked diligently with love and reverence.
As I watched, she told stories about the menorah and her childhood in Schedrin, a shtetl in Minsk, Belarus. She shared tidbits from her life, her large family, her father’s wisdom, her mother’s kindness, and the sacrifices they made in sending her to America when she was 14 years old, hoping to give her a better life. Most of Rose’s stories had a common message: Life in America is full of endless possibilities because there is “freedom.”
For Grandma Rose, the menorah was a symbol of freedom to practice one’s religion without fear of a pogrom. When we lit the candles, we not only remembered the brave Maccabees and how they fought off their oppressors but also took time to appreciate the issues that are vital to democracy and freedom. In America, we could put the menorah in the window for everyone to see. As children, we watched the candles melt and marveled each day in the light that another candle would produce. On Monday, the last day of Hanukkah, all nine candles would be burning brightly.
Yet today, many American Jews are deciding to hide their history and beliefs out of fear, according to the American Jewish Committee’s “The State of Antisemitism in America 2021” report.
Four out of 10 American Jews (39%) have made at least one change to their behavior over the past 12 months, such as not posting content online that would enable others to identify them as Jewish or reveal their views on Jewish issues (25%). Another 22% said they had avoided wearing or displaying things that might enable others to identify them as Jewish, and 17% have avoided certain places, events, or situations due to fear of anti-Semitism.
These fears aren’t unfounded: One in four American Jews (24%) says they have been the target of anti-Semitism over the past 12 months, such as through in-person remarks (17%), social media or online (12%), or physical attacks (3%).
American Jews remain concerned about anti-Semitism, but the general public doesn’t view it with as much gravity: 90% of American Jews said anti-Semitism is either somewhat of a problem or a very serious problem, compared with only 60% of the general public.
We are at a critical moment in history. Anti-Semitism is becoming normalized within mainstream society. Ignorance, apathy, and hate all contribute to the spread of anti-Semitism and have found fertile ground amid a global health crisis, rising economic uncertainty, growing political divides, declining American leadership abroad, and a massive shift in how people engage online.
Freedom needs to be defended against both the old and new bigotries that would extinguish its light. May the Hanukkah lights inspire everyone to commit to pursuing the end to violence for religious differences, the end of abuses of religious freedom, and the end to all forms of hatred. Let’s think about how we can safeguard our values as rising hate and extremism threaten our democratic and pluralistic way of life.
“May the Hanukkah lights inspire everyone to commit to pursuing the end to violence for religious differences, the end of abuses of religious freedom, and the end to all forms of hatred.”
My grandmother loved the Statue of Liberty. She remembers seeing it when her ship passed through New York Harbor on her journey to America. A young Jewish girl, Emma Lazarus, wrote the words inscribed on the statue, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
One of the essential components of Hanukkah is publicizing the miracle of the small bit of oil burning for eight days, and the triumph of the few against the many. As we bless the Hanukkah candles, may we help bring light into the world and dispel the darkness that hate seeks to highlight.
Marcia Bronstein is the director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey.