In A Year Of Antisemitism, I’m Going Big For Hanukkah

Join me in singing the Hanukkah blessings loud enough for Ye to hear.

a house decked out in Hanukkah decorations including string lights, some in the shape of a Star of David, inflatable dreidel and menorah, and festive star-shaped lights on the bushes

The end of 2022 has been a particularly rough couple months for the chosen people. An extremely popular figure with a huge following started spouting hateful rhetoric about us, which gave permission to others harboring similar hate to release theirs into the world as well. Because if a famous, powerful person can say it, why can’t they?

And while the absolute shitstorm that is Q4 2022 Ye hasn’t helped things, antisemitism was already on the rise (also, it never went away). A total of 2,717 antisemitic incidents were reported to the Anti-Defamation League in 2021, which represented a 34% increase from the year prior — and the highest number of incidents on record since they began monitoring in 1979. The FBI has been collecting data on hate crimes since the ’90s and consistently found that over half of all religion-based crimes target the Jewish community.

I am of 100% Jewish descent, but I grew up in a small town that was predominantly Catholic and WASP — picture country clubs, lots of blonde hair, and at least six churches within two square miles. My paternal grandparents, also fully Jewish by blood, avoided any association with Judaism and had us celebrate every Christmas with a tree, stockings, and baked ham until my grandmother’s passing in 2015. But my parents raised us with synagogue services on the High Holidays and Hebrew school through our b’nai mitzvah.

Shortly after learning about the Holocaust in Hebrew school, I saw photos in our local paper of swastikas drawn on windows at a local elementary school. I begged my parents to stop being members of our synagogue since temple membership records were one of the sources used by Nazis to track down Jews during World War II — and as far as I could tell, another Holocaust was imminent. I was 8 years old.

In middle school, kids would shout heil at me in the cafeteria or drop change and ask if I wanted to pick it up. The number of jokes that were made, playing on one Jewish stereotype or another, would shock many people coming out of a New York City suburb. So you can see why I’ve always had a complicated relationship with my Jewishness.

As much as I loved the holidays growing up and the many traditions my family had built, I didn’t love that my Christian classmates knew about Hanukkah, because it emphasized the fact that I was different around that time of year. Hanukkah is actually not one of the important religious holidays in Judaism — it was not one of the few that got us to temple — but non-Jewish kids aren’t really aware of Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, so if I didn’t call attention to them, nobody else would.

To this day, I downplay this part of my identity. I actively avoid bringing up religion when I meet new people. I pretend I don’t know the blessings when my parents lead them during our holiday celebrations. But this year, as Hanukkah approaches, I suddenly have the urge to celebrate harder than ever before.

I’m no longer religious (*cough* agnostic *cough*). I know many people struggle to understand how you can have a strong cultural connection to Judaism if religion doesn’t play a role, but that’s just one of the many things that make us unique and cool, okay?

This recent and extremely public wave of antisemitism did the opposite of what those haters likely intended. It made me want to embrace my Jewish roots — not in a godly way, but in some way that could make me feel closer to my people. And Hanukkah happens to be my first opportunity.

I don’t know exactly how or if this year’s holiday will actually be any different than Hanukkahs past. So far, I’m just vowing to sing the blessings over the candles loud and proud at our family Hanukkah party. The lighting of the candles each night of Hanukkah is one of those rituals that Jews across the world are doing in some form, and participating helps me feel connected to the larger community. I am also willing to eat more latkes (fried potato pancakes) and gelt (chocolate coins) than I normally would, in honor of Jewish tradition.

Parts of this grand plan are complicated by the fact that Christmas 2022 falls within our eight crazy nights, and I’m spending the holiday in California with my gentile boyfriend. I jokingly told him I’d bring a menorah so that we could continue to light the candles, but I don’t know if I’m actually comfortable enough to instigate that with his family. Maybe this new relationship with my Judaism will be a slow burn that starts more conceptual than applied, like writing an article that exposes this deep insecurity to the entire internet.

To be clear, given the hate crime statistics and antisemitic incidents spurred by Ye’s tirade, I’m still scared that some prejudiced people will use the upcoming holiday as an excuse for more violence. And while that thought would usually make me want to hide and deny even more, doing so now would feel like letting him win. He doesn’t deserve to win, so I’m taking baby steps toward acceptance instead. Happy Hanukkah, y’all.

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