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Hanukkah's Freedoms

A great miracle happened there. These words are part of Hanukkah’s essence and the phrase the dreidel’s letters point us toward.

Thousands of years ago the Maccabees fought against oppressors who persecuted our ancestors, prohibited Jewish practice and desecrated Jerusalem’s holy Temple. When the Maccabees succeeded in their fight, they rededicated the Temple to Jewish prayer and instituted our holiday of Hanukkah.

In their eight-day long dedication ceremony, they rejoiced that Jews could once again freely acknowledge their faith. We continue to celebrate the Maccabees’ achievements and mark this holiday of Hanukkah every year with the lighting of the menorah, the playing of dreidel and the eating of latkes or sufganiyot (jelly donuts).

On each successive night we light one more candle as the miracle increases. We recall that during Hanukkah’s first celebration we did not know if the oil would last for the requisite eight days. The increasing miracle, and the growing light, dispels our worries.

Hanukkah is about the freedom to celebrate our Judaism. Is this miracle enough? This holiday reminds us that we can proudly proclaim our Jewish faith in a world where our Jewish identities are sometimes demeaned, and other times begrudged us. In the face of mounting antisemitism and hate, this year’s Hanukkah has taken on new meaning and additional import. We must take up the Maccabees’ resolve.

On Saturday, the cantor and I participated in Oyster Bay’s holiday festival. The focus of the festivities was of course the lighting of the Christmas tree and as far as the hundreds of children in attendance were concerned, Santa Claus riding in on a fire truck. And yet, I remain grateful that town officials asked us to participate and wanted to display a Hanukkah menorah alongside the tree. I am grateful that they invited me to speak and the cantor to sing.

We can dwell on the alarming increase in antisemitism, or we can focus on Saturday’s events. In Oyster Bay our neighbors go to great effort to make us feel welcome. Here we are made to feel invited. We are asked to display a menorah. We are asked to erect the symbol of our faith alongside other people’s.

Here we can proudly declare our Jewish faith to others. On this Hanukkah we celebrate the freedom to celebrate our Jewish faith. We proclaim that in this blessed place we can celebrate all faiths. And when we are not made to feel welcome or when we notice other people’s faiths cast aside, we must take up the Maccabees’ cause and fight to make sure that all can freely celebrate their faiths.

That is Hanukkah’s true essence. And that miracle remains in our hands.