With the start of Hanukkah on December 18, Jews at Florida State and around the world have begun lighting Hanukkah menorahs, spinning dreidels, consuming sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), and exchanging gifts. However, the festival also teaches Jews like myself who celebrate an important lesson.
In recent months, burgeoning anti-Semitism both domestically and internationally has been roundly and rightly condemned. Unfortunately, those who wish to undermine the Jewish community through the spreading of anti-Semitic canards have done so without hesitation. Most notably, rapper Kanye West took part in a series of interviews where he made clear his enmity towards Jews, even going so far as to express admiration for Adolf Hitler.
But there is another pernicious threat facing Jews in America and throughout the world. The forces of assimilation are hard at work, and seem to be succeeding now more than ever. As of 2020, just 28 percent of American Jews see religion as important in their lives, compared to 57 percent of Christians. In contrast to this sobering statistic, over 75 percent of American Jews say that “being Jewish” – embracing their Jewish identity – is either very or somewhat important.
The apparent incongruity between these numbers is explained by a persistent phenomenon in Jewish life. American Jews are conscious of the fact that anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head, and as a result, feel it is necessary to express their Jewish identity in the wake of this.
However, Jews are generally not as observant as other religious groups, as evidenced by polling data. And to many Jews, Hanukkah is still seen as a major holiday on the Hebrew calendar due to its ubiquity in modern culture. Despite this pervasive perception, Hanukkah is not as central to the Jewish faith as High Holy Days such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – and is, in fact, a minor holiday.
The commemoration of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire – and more broadly, Jews resisting the forces of Hellenization (assimilation by non-Greeks into Greek culture) – is the reason for observing Hanukkah. But while there is awareness of the miracle of oil that lit the lamp in the Holy Temple for eight days instead of one, Hanukkah should be more than just a celebration of this particular event.
With the issue of anti-Semitism once again being widely discussed, Jews at Florida State and beyond should take Hanukkah’s central lesson to heart. The scourge of Jew-hatred must be fought at every turn. But so should the looming specter of continued assimilation.
This year, we should draw inspiration from the Maccabees. In the face of pressure to relinquish our faith and identity, Jews must take a stand and refuse to do so.