February 18, 2020

The Politics of Joy During an Unusually Bleak Hanukkah

There’s a rule that we can’t use the glow of the Hanukkah candles to read, light a room or keep warm. Is there a deeper meaning here or is it a kind of halachic riddle? 

The sages say the sacred candlelight may not be used for any purpose but looking and reveling in the miracle they represent. I’m all for the notion of a mitzvah for its own sake. At the same time, “display and enjoy but don’t use” sounds like a call to publicize the miracle without politicizing it. A nice idea, but in these times, such instruction would appear wasteful and naive. We don’t observe our mitzvot in a vacuum — if we did, they wouldn’t mean as much. 

Conceding in my last column that anti-Semitic incidents were the new normal, I made a case for Hanukkah’s heightened importance as both a unifier and source of relief for Diaspora Jews. We need to savor the lighter moments in these times, I wrote, “and if there’s a word for fun, it’s Hanukkah.” Devoid of context or judgment, the levity of the season could and did bring Jews of different backgrounds together. This was, in a sense, arguing for a Hanukkah that was publicized and not politicized. 

I entered this Hanukkah season feeling unusually grateful. A close family member survived a medical near miss earlier in the month of Kislev — dayenu. The Maccabees’ heroic, miraculous defense of the right to assimilate on their own terms resonated with my experiences this year observing halachah in an apartment with non-Jewish roommates. Indeed, lighting the candles with roommates present felt like an awesome echo of the past, and a miracle in itself.

The news coming out of the Jewish community during this year’s Festival of Lights offered anything but relief. Instead, more tragedy: more hate speech sprayed on Jewish institutions and more random acts of violence against Jewish people. These will be followed by more questions about the compromises we will make to our values in the name of security. This Hanukkah contained one of the darkest weeks of a worryingly bleak 2019.

As the Jewish world tossed and turned, I went to more Hanukkah parties — every event on the late-December calendar but the Matzo Ball. It felt more important than ever to have fun. It was a surefire way to keep the forces of anti-Semitism from winning. Yes, deliberate candle watching was the way to go. The best way to use the Hanukkah candles was to not repurpose them. I felt pretty good about this stance. Very halachic.

The stabbings at the Rabbi Rottenberg shul in Monsey, N.Y., on the seventh night of Hanukkah did not shake my belief that we should leave the candles out of this. Rather, it was the sight of Jews of all religious and political backgrounds descending upon Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn — not for a vigil, but to dance the final night of Hanukkah away with Crown Heights Chasids. Uniting under the largest menorah in Brooklyn defied every force seeking to divide us and to cleave us from our allies. Photos of the black, brown and Muslim groups who joined us at the park that night — not just sending tweets, but showing up — provide an unmistakable blueprint for an architecture of resistance, as well as a glowing reminder that we’re not alone. It goes without saying that we have to show up for them, too, and we can’t wait until something horrible happens to start.

In interpreting the beautiful moment of Prospect Park as a call to strengthen our bonds within and beyond our community, I may be politicizing the miracle of Hanukkah, not just publicizing it. I am refusing to let the precious candles of the final night burn down without using them to light the way forward. 

Maybe it took me a full holiday of candle watching — eight days of bad news and eight nights of fun — to put a finger on the miracle those candles represent. Or maybe the miracle didn’t appear until the last day.


Louis Keene is a writer based in Los Angeles. He tweets at @thislouis.