Hanukkah starts at sundown on December 6. It’s sometimes called the Festival of Lights because we light candles every night for eight nights–starting with one, ending with eight. Some people eat fried food to commemorate the miracle of the oil in the Temple: a flame was supposed to be lit constantly in front of the Ark of the Covenant. Growing up in Kansas, I was always the only Jewish kid in my class. I told the story of Hanukkah so many times I never wanted to tell it again, so this is the short version. You can read a longer version here:
Hellenized Syrians had conquered the land of Israel and turned the Temple into a shrine for the Greek gods. They demanded that Jews give up their own beliefs and bow down to Zeus. When the Temple was reclaimed from the Greeks, legend has it that there was only enough oil to burn for a day and a night, but while messengers were scouring the land for another supply–which took eight days to arrive in Jerusalem–the little vial kept burning. And so we light candles and fry food. Hmmm.
In the context of today’s extremism in just about every religion, including Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and even the Buddhists in Burma, parts of the story are troubling. Historians say that the Hasmonean brothers, who drove the Greeks and their idols from the land, installed a ferociously rigid version of Judaism, and punished, even killing people who didn’t live up to their version of the religion. On the one hand, the Hasmoneans were heroic: they valiantly stood up to and conquered a much larger invading army, they protected the right of their people to worship as they chose. On the other hand, once in power, they were rigid and punitive.
Despite this troubling history, Hanukkah is a time for acts of bravery, even small acts. Jews are encouraged to set their Menorahs in a window where they can be seen. In some parts of the world, even in some parts of America, it can be hard to be a Jew. It takes particular courage to make a public declaration, to show that very Jewish symbol to the world.
This public declaration for me means I must start to take a more visible stand on the issues that matter most to me in today’s America, in particular, reproductive rights. Like many supporters of women’s right to make their own health and reproductive decisions without church or state interference, I’ve let myself be silenced by the inflammatory rhetoric of those who think we are children (or even chattel animals: the Illinois legislature assigns women’s health to their agricultural livestock committee). Yesterday I stood with Planned Parenthood on Michigan Avenue. I continue to stand with them.