Happy Hanukkah! I know, many of you are saying “I’m not Jewish.” Regardless of faith, Hanukkah is a holiday all of us should celebrate. One of the unique advantages we have as Americans is the ability to practice our faiths freely, and to openly engage in multi-faith celebrations. We see this trend growing in relation to Christmas, as Star of David Christmas tree toppers have lined the shelves for years, and now even Nation of Islam toppers are available. In part, this is because of the rise in multi-faith families, but there’s also no denying the simple fact that Christmas is a fun holiday. Here’s a secret: so is Hanukkah, with its sufganiyot, better known as jelly-filled donuts. Who doesn’t like donuts? This year, especially in light of a new wave of anti-Semitism pervading much of Europe and even parts of the U.S., it’s important to show our support for our Jewish brothers and sisters.
Most of us probably know the story of the depleted oil supply that should have only kept the temple lights burning for one night but somehow stayed lit for eight. This is the reason menorahs are lit in Jewish households around the world during the eight nights of Hanukkah. Though this magical oil is likely a myth, the historical account of what led to Hanukkah is a story Americans in particular, regardless of faith, should honor.
When Alexander the Great invaded the Middle East, he allowed local tribes to maintain their religious practices and observances. This period of benevolence saw some assimilation as people throughout the region began adopting Hellenistic customs, clothing and language, similar to the melting pot that is modern day America. For more than a century this blending of traditions prospered, until the rise of Antiochus IV. Antiochus not only oppressed, tortured and killed Jews, he appointed pagan priests to their temples and defaced their altars with unclean animals, particularly pigs. His soldiers also defiled the oil used to light the menorah in the temple each night. When the Jewish people rose up and defeated the Greeks, they found only enough oil to last through one night. Somehow though, according to the story, the oil lasted for eight nights, the amount of time it took for a new batch to be made and blessed in accordance with Jewish custom. Thus, the story of the oil became legend.
Persecution and oppression were the key elements that led to the establishment of our great nation. Many of us have ancestors who came here to escape the same kind of religious persecution Jews faced during the reign of Antiochus IV. Whether they were Irish Catholics oppressed by absurd penal laws, Puritans fleeing the Church of England, Hindus or Sufis pushed out by invasion, or Sunni or Shia escaping hardliners, they all came and continue to come to this country where they are promised the right to honor their religious beliefs and customs. Religious liberty is one of the key tenets of freedom, and therefore it is right as a country whose foundation is built upon liberty, that we all should celebrate alongside our Jewish brethren their triumph over religious persecution centuries before any government protected religious rights.