Thursday evening marked the first night of Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah), the Jewish Festival of Lights.
But what is typically a holiday of great joy – complete with menorah-lighting, gift-giving, and special festive meals – has taken on a slightly different shade this year amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza and reports of rising antisemitism around the globe.
Against that backdrop, this Hanukkah season, many Jewish people are feeling more solemn than celebratory.
Some report feeling on edge or downright worried about being targeted for their identity.
Others are feeling deeply conflicted about that identity as bombs continue to fall and the death toll ticks up ever further in Gaza.
Jews Call for Ceasefire
This year's Hanukkah in New York City is marked by complex emotions, particularly among Jewish communities. Rising incidents of both antisemitic and anti-Muslim hate crimes have heightened tensions.
Moreover, many progressive Jews are voicing their concern over civilian casualties in Gaza and Israel, seeking to dissociate their Jewish identity from the Israeli government's actions.
Hundreds of Jewish people gathered at Columbus Circle in Manhattan for a traditional holiday candle lighting – but also to advocate for peace in Gaza.
They lit a nine-foot tall menorah that read “ceasefire”.
Wrapped in winter attire and holding menorahs, the participants' mood was one of solemn remembrance rather than festivity, reflecting on the lives lost in the recent Israel-Hamas conflict since the October 7th incidents.
“This just feels like a very powerful opportunity for us to continue to be very, very loud and clear that we see no military solution to this conflict,” said Audrey Sasson, the executive director of Jews For Racial & Economic Justice.
“As a Jewish person, my identity is being used to kill innocent people,” added participant Ben Sullivan. “It makes me really upset, but it gives me a lot of hope to see so many other Jewish people who feel the same way.”
Non-Jews Standing in Solidarity
Others see things in different terms. In the aftermath of the October 7th massacre by Hamas, individuals from various backgrounds are “adopting” Judaism and standing in solidarity with the Jewish people.
Among those beating the drum is former New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who wrote a piece in the New York Daily News urging people to “stand with Jews” this Hanukkah season. Here’s an excerpt of what he wrote:
“Tonight marks the first night of Chanukah, a holiday commemorating religious freedom and the perseverance of the Jewish people.
This occasion of celebration and reflection takes on a new urgency this year as Jews across the world grapple with rising antisemitism to a degree that has not been seen in generations. They need more than words of support. For non-Jews it is critical that in deeds and actions we stand by our friends and neighbors in this crucial time.
In 186 B.C., the Jewish community was under assault and their Temple in Jerusalem was desecrated. The Maccabees fought off those who would destroy their way of life and reclaimed the Temple. When the Maccabees went to rededicate the Temple and to light the Menorah, the ritual candelabra, there was only enough oil for a single night. Yet the oil burned for eight days, enough time to allow for sufficient oil to be obtained for the restoration of worship.
These events for which Chanukah is celebrated took place more than two millennia ago; but they are as timely as if they happened on Oct. 7.
Jews targeted. Their Temple desecrated. Their right to worship assaulted. Their very existence threatened.
This was true then, and sadly it is as true today."
Identity in Crisis
But as evidenced by the protest in Manhattan, for some in the Jewish community, the issue remains immensely more complicated than simply “stand with Jews”.
They report feeling a deep internal conflict regarding their identities, torn between their allegiance to Israel and the Jewish community, and their distress over the actions of the Israeli government and the escalating death toll in Gaza.
On one side, there is a sense of kinship and loyalty to Israel as a central aspect of Jewish identity and heritage. This bond often includes a feeling of solidarity with fellow Jews and the desire to support Israel as a homeland and a symbol of Jewish resilience.
However, on the other side, there's growing unease and horror about the Israeli government's policies and military actions in Gaza, which have resulted in significant loss of life and suffering.
Many feel that these actions contradict the core values of Judaism, which emphasize peace, justice, and the sanctity of life. This dissonance has led to difficult conversations within the Jewish community about how to reconcile these conflicting feelings.
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