The Jewish Festival of Lights began last night. It brightens winter’s gloom, offers hope we can overcome all the reasons we’ve had to despair. This year, Chanukah is more special than ever.

2020 brought us the COVID-19 pandemic, which shrouded America in darkness—especially since many tens of thousands of deaths probably could have been avoided if we all wore masks, kept our distance and avoided crowded indoor places. For those of us who cherish our democracy—both its accomplishments and opportunities for improvement—the last four years cast a pall over the nation. 

We American Jews have experienced our own horrors. 

The darkness of the Trump years included the 2017 march in Charlottesville, Virginia of anti-Semites chanting “Jews will not replace us”; the 2018 shooting murders of 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue; and the 2019 shooting at Chabad of Poway (north of San Diego) that killed one. A variety of anti-Semitic acts proliferated nationwide, in part thanks to a president who winks at “good people on both sides.” 

This Chanukah, we have more reason than ever to light our chanukiahs—menorahs with not seven but nine candles, one used to kindle the other eight. We actively bring light to the world, hope to dark days. Those candles—one lit the first night of this eight-day holiday, an additional candle lit each succeeding night—take us back over 2,100 years.

In 162 BCE, the Jews fought against, and rid themselves of, the Assyrian Greeks who dominated Judea. (Disclosure: We also battled each other.) The most popular version of events leading to the holiday has been, until recently, the “miracle” of one day’s supply of pure olive oil burning for eight days in Jerusalem’s rededicated (chanukah means dedication) Second Temple. 

Disclosure #2: The oil story was a Rabbinic cover-up. Years later, the Sages sought to keep Judea’s new occupier, Rome, off our backs. Celebrate a miracle? No problem. Celebrate armed rebellion? An invitation for the emperor’s legions to rampage.

Today in America, many Jews with little or no other connection to Judaism celebrate Chanukah. The holiday often serves as a counter to Christmas, whose symbols and music envelopes Jews, less than two percent of the population. But while Chanukah enables Jews to celebrate as the winter solstice approaches (and sometimes after), it also enables us to gather strength by looking back and so prepare to move forward. 

The chanukiah reminds us that while life brings suffering, it also offers renewal. Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) says, “For everything there is a season.” In this regard, while human nature often betrays corruption, it also displays kindness and heroism. Proof of the latter surrounds us each day in the work of people in our healthcare, public health and other sectors that sustain us in the worst of times so that we can possibly enjoy the best.

Many paths lead towards hopefulness and lives of true humanity—caring and sharing. Chanukah marks one of the milestones along mine. Whatever yours may be—religious or secular—let’s agree that different isn’t bad. It’s just different. That alone will brighten our future.

In the broadest sense, Happy Chanukah whether it’s your holiday or not. May each chanukiah lead us towards the light of a fulfilling life embracing true humanity.

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  1. Ellen Newman on December 11, 2020 at 6:41 pm

    Impressive new design, David. Kudos to Susan Weeks. And thanks, as always, for reminding us of where we’ve been and showing us a path forward.

    • David Perlstein on December 11, 2020 at 7:51 pm

      Thanks, Ellen. Moving forward isn’t an option.

  2. David Newman on December 11, 2020 at 7:41 pm

    I love the new website. Mazel tov!

    Chanukah as a celebration of religious freedom is a good reminder that we should never let reality get in the way of a good metaphor. The reality is that the Maccabees were religious zealots, and their rebellion was as much an internecine battle against Hellenized Jews as it was a fight against an occupying power. And, according to some historians, it wasn’t until the rising power of Rome intervened — because Rome wanted to assert itself as the dominant Mediterranean power — that the Seleucids were defeated. Finally, the Maccabees’ successors became tyrants themselves. Real history aside, the meaning that Chanukah has acquired over the years is what we celebrate, not the historical reality.

    The Chanukah story also demonstrates the importance of inspired leadership. The ability of leaders with a clear vision of what needs to be done is often the difference between a society’s responding effectively or failing. Yes, in 2020 people could have worn masks and kept their distance on their own, but it would have been so much easier if there had been a clear, unambiguous message from the top. Instead, we got a muddled — frequently flagrantly wrong — set of messages that simply confused people, and hundreds of thousands of people died needlessly.*

    * [If the US had merely been as effective as Canada — never mind South Korea or Viet Nam — in responding to the crisis, by my calculation, there would have been 180,000 fewer deaths.]

    • David Perlstein on December 11, 2020 at 7:57 pm

      Yes, David. Not sure that Rome played a role; they came in later. The internecine war was brutal and not to our advantage. The Hasmonean dynasty that followed was atrocious. It was the continuing upset that gave Rome opportunities and motivated Herod the “Great” to make an alliance—in order to gain power, not put Judea on the right path. But just as Torah depicts our ancestors’ flaws, so does the Chanukah story. What we take from it, how we fashion it for the good—for ourselves and others—is what counts. Re preventable deaths during the pandemic, I was being too subtle. Trump’s failure to urge Americans to take the precautions outlined by public-health experts would have saved many lives. His refusal to acknowledge reality to gain political advantage makes him perhaps the greatest mass murderer in the nation’s history. No subtlety there.

  3. Claudia Long on December 11, 2020 at 5:04 pm

    Nice new website! May each candle light our way out of darkness. Happy Hanukkah, and keep the posts coming!

    • David Perlstein on December 11, 2020 at 5:08 pm

      Thanks, Claudia. I’m delighted with the new site and will, indeed, keep righting. Happy Chanukah!

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