While it used to be (and, in some dark corners of the internet, still is) a common theme around the holidays to claim a “war on Christmas,” there was a war on Hanukkah. A few of them, actually. It seems that ever since Judaism came on the scene, there have been people who have tried to stop the practice of it.
During the Spanish Inquisition, all practices of Judaism were outlawed. So, instead of lighting menorahs in their windowsill, Spanish Jews were forced to light them in their basement so that they would not get caught. In Eastern European countries in the 1930s and ‘40s, Jewish people were placed into concentration camps, where any celebration of Hanukkah was meager, and the participants were at risk of being punished.
In Middle Eastern countries in the 1940s and ‘50s, Jewish citizens (two of whom were my grandparents) also faced persecution and were threatened with beatings and death if they celebrated Jewish holidays like Hanukkah. Still, the tradition persisted. Even in the most dire of times, Jews continued to celebrate Hanukkah.
But why was Hanukkah so important to celebrate? It’s because the holiday is a symbol of Jewish resistance against oppression. Hanukkah commemorates the revolt of the Jewish army, called the Maccabees, against King Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the reclaiming of the Holy Temple from the Greek troops. That is the original war on Hanukkah, long before any other group tried to take our religious freedom away.
The story of the Maccabees’ bravery inspired Jews living under oppressive governments to fight back. Hanukkah used to be celebrated as a further mark of resistance against persecution, but that is no longer the case. In much of the world, there is no need for Jewish people to resist religious oppression because there is none. In the U.S. especially, an overwhelming amount of communities accept Jewish people and our customs with open arms.
Jewish identity is now no longer about the struggle to remain Jewish despite hostility. It is now something much more complex; the modern Jewish struggle is about resisting assimilation. In other words, we used to fight the regimes we lived under to stay Jewish, but now we must fight ourselves. It has never been easier to be Jewish, but it has also never been easier to assimilate.
Jewish people are no longer regarded as second-class citizens, so we can enjoy the advantages that our ancestors couldn’t. Because of this, we can become just like our non-Jewish neighbors. We can put up Christmas trees in our house if we want because we have the freedom to choose. We can avoid going to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, feast on Yom Kippur and ignore Shabbat altogether. Jewish people can even anglicize our names so that we fit in with our non-Jewish neighbors.
Being Jewish has become a choice more than anything. I choose to attend services and Shabbat dinner at Chabad. I choose to celebrate all the holidays and keep kosher. I choose to keep my incredibly Jewish name rather than change it. But this choice gets more difficult as the years go by, not because anybody is telling me to not be Jewish, but because being Jewish is a choice as well.
Celebrating Hanukkah is still an expression of religious freedom, but it is no longer in the face of oppression. The reality is quite the opposite from that. Public displays of Judaism, like lighting the menorah in your windowsill, are not symbols of victory over tyranny but symbols of victory over assimilation. Which is why, when I light my menorah in my apartment on Mill Street, I keep it right in front of my window for everyone to see. I am a proud Jew, not in spite of subjugation, but in spite of assimilation.
Hadass Galili is a junior studying political science pre-law at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnist do not reflect those of The Post. Do you agree? Tell Hadass by tweeting her at @HadassGalili.