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Why many Jews in the U.S. are conflicted about publicly celebrating Hanukkah


Hanukkah began last night. The Talmud directs Jews to not just celebrate the holiday but to do it publicly, placing their menorahs where passersby can see the lights. As Deena Prichep reports, with a rise in antisemitism, some American Jews are conflicted about making their identities so public.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Every Hanukkah, Beth Richman sets up her electric menorah in the kitchen window of her Portland home.

BETH RICHMAN: It's very '70s. And it's kind of faux silver. It's plastic. And it has these blue- and white-tipped light bulbs.

PRICHEP: Give the candles a twist, and they light up for everyone to see. It's kitschy and sweet and fills the window with light. But in recent years...

RICHMAN: You know, the Proud Boys marched through this neighborhood. So having a menorah does feel riskier, absolutely. And this year, with what's happening on the global stage with Twitter deregulating, it's frightening. It's a frightening time.

JACOB ARI LABENDZ: It seems that right now, I think quite understandably, much of the American Jewish community is concerned about what seems to be rising currents of antisemitism.

PRICHEP: Jacob Ari Labendz directs the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo College. What counts as antisemitism can be debated. But the Anti-Defamation League counted the highest number of antisemitic incidents ever last year and says this year looks on track to be the same.

LABENDZ: Shortly after the Holocaust, there's been a bipartisan commitment to anti-antisemitism in this country. It didn't mean that people didn't have misgivings about Jews, that they weren't ambivalent about Jews, but it meant that in polite society, we were committed to seeing Jews as fully American.

PRICHEP: And Labendz is worried that may be changing.

LABENDZ: I am concerned, more broadly than white nationalism, about the rise and the normalization of and the mainstreaming of a certain fascist politics, a certain doubt in democracy, a certain closing in of the borders around who is in and who is out. Having said that, it's hard to judge just how bad things are when Jews expect things to be excellent in America.

PRICHEP: There is a phrase in the Talmud - pirsumei nisa - that tells Jews to publicize the miracle. It refers to Hanukkah, and also Passover and Purim. David Shyovitz teaches Jewish history at Northwestern. He says those three holidays were chosen for a reason.

DAVID SHYOVITZ: These are stories where Jewish visibility, where Jewish difference from the surrounding culture is causing problems and leads to threats.

PRICHEP: And there have been many times when celebrating those stories would not have been safe, whether you're talking about the Spanish Inquisition or Nazi Germany. But Shyovitz says it could also serve as a human moment and show people who their neighbors are.

SHYOVITZ: Jewish observance is supposed to create connections - connections in the Jewish home, within the Jewish community, within Jewish institutions, but also between all of those things and the broader non-Jewish world.

PRICHEP: For many American Jews, hateful tweets, synagogue shootings, a former president hosting white nationalists are frightening. They remind people of danger they hoped was in the past. Back in New York during World War II, Beth Richman's grandparents had a brick thrown through their window. She says putting her little electric menorah up in her Portland window feels like an important act of resistance.

RICHMAN: We do have to light up our identities. We do have to light up the awareness that we have warmth and light and beauty during this time of year as well.

PRICHEP: Lighting a candle, or twisting a bulb, is a way of literally identifying yourself, but also a way of kindling a light in dark times and welcoming others to do the same.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICHIKA NITO'S "ISOLATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deena Prichep