Hanukkah II — Honoring 2020

Hanukkah was never celebrated in my house when I was growing up. My Catholic mom and Jewish dad were fairly explicit from early on that figuring out religion was entirely up to me. (So, holidays are for presents, and Sundays are for golf. Easy!) Well, I finally figured one thing out: America deserves its own Hanukkah — a celebration of Americans defending their democratic institutions and values. (No, not the Proud Boys, but those standing up to the Proud Boys. Not the 126 members of Congress and 19 states attorneys general who supported a Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn the presidential election, but the conservative-majority Supreme Court that refused to hear the case.)

Now, I consider my claim to speak authoritatively on Judaism similar to my journalism credentials — technically, I have some legitimate claim of credibility on the matter, but I wouldn’t presume any title on par with the real leaders in either field (from Woodward and Bernstein to ProPublica and KyCIR… or my uncles Bill and Bob) — but here’s a brief history of Hanukkah, from which we can draw important parallels:

When high priests rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem by lighting the eternal flame in honor of God — after Jews rose against a professionally trained army to reclaim Jerusalem from oppressive Greek-Syrian rule — one night’s worth of lamp (or menorah) oil “miraculously” burned for eight nights, when the oil supply could be replenished. Hanukkah, the “Festival of Lights,” and the practice of lighting the menorah over eight nights, is a celebration of this miracle.

More than the particular miracle of the candle, however, Hanukkah represents the importance of reflecting on, celebrating and honoring the strength and resolve of the Jewish people — the miracle that Judaism survived against enormous odds. (One historic detail of the Hanukkah story recounts when the Greek-Syrian army descended on Jerusalem, in addition to slaughtering thousands of Jews, soldiers sacrificed pigs within the sacred walls — adding humiliation to violent assault. How Trumpian can a pre-Middle Ages tyrant be?)

I’m not just feeling particularly Jewish these days because it’s Hanukkah. Instead, seemingly every day brings another reminder of the physical and emotional threats to our most basic Americanness. A county commissioner in Idaho last week had to leave a virtual meeting, which included a vote on a local mask mandate, “after getting a phone call that anti-mask protesters had surrounded her home,” NBC News reported. “My 12-year-old son is home by himself right now, and there are protesters banging outside the door,” she explained on the meeting. “I’m going to go home and make sure he’s OK.”

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A pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., over the weekend led to several confrontations with both counterprotestors and police. Several people were stabbed, and multiple historically Black churches reported having Black Lives Matter signs destroyed, one burned in the street a few blocks from the White House.

Then, on Saturday night, the third night of Hanukkah, a man was attacked at a menorah lighting ceremony outside of the Jewish Student Center near UK. “The attacker grabbed the man and held his arm, dragging him for a block, and running over his leg. The car then sped off …” the center wrote in a Facebook post, as reported by Lexington Herald-Leader. Thankfully, the man survived. But just as lighting the menorah symbolizes the miraculous history of the Hanukkah story, so too was the victim’s response after the Lexington attack: “Before he left for the hospital, the newest hero of Chanukah insisted we light the Menorah, and not allow darkness to quench our light.”

Sadly, there will not be an abrupt end to these threats. We will not be able to ignite an eternal-American flame signifying the miracle of our American endurance toward a more perfect union. We have too far to go: Black lives still don’t matter to too many communities, including Louisville; Kentucky State Police still find training inspiration from quoting Hitler; each gun violence death adds to this year’s record, now at more than 150; and too many state lawmakers think the Democratic governor is more of a problem than taking steps to save their constituents from economic devastation resulting from the pandemic.

Despite everything, the man got up and lit the menorah. Despite Trump’s best, most authoritarian efforts, the Electoral College elected Joe Biden as President. And, protesters will continue to show up until equal justice is realized.

The courage and heroism shown by those under attack is a miracle and worth celebrating.

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