For most of my life, the stories of persecution and physical danger associated with Hanukkah were distant tales. Born in New York, the most secure of Jewish Diasporas, the prospect that shooters would target a kosher store in nearby Jersey City just days before the Festival of Lights was beyond imagination.
What resonated for this post-1967 educated Modern Orthodox Jew and veteran immigrant to Israel, was striking a balance between the narrative of Hasmonean bravery and the holy tradition of divine miracles. At some point, I learned that the initial ancient battles were actually between rival Jewish factions and reflected conflicting approaches to engagement with the dominant political and cultural forces of the region. This offered some additional food for thought.
However, returning home from a brief trip to the United States just in time for this Hanukkah’s first candle-lighting, I carried with me enough encounters with anti-Semitism and its impact on contemporary American Jews to last for all eight nights and way beyond:
I arrived on a Friday, with the details of the Jersey City shooting that killed five people headlining the news.
During the first Sabbath, I served as scholar-in-residence at a Modern Orthodox synagogue in a Northeastern state. Fresh security measures had lately been implemented. The aesthetic main doors that face a major thoroughfare are now locked from inside. All attendees have to pass through a narrow side-opening manned by a hired armed guard who stops newcomers for questioning. While such procedures are de rigueur in European synagogues, until recently this was not the case in America.
More striking, in conversations with congregants I discovered that of late a number have received handgun training and come to prayers strapped with licensed concealed-weapons. Indeed, one regular shared their concern that some of the new gun-carriers still maintained their custom of throwing-down a few shots of “schnapps” with their crackers and herring at the post-prayer kiddush. As an Israeli I am used to seeing armed civilians at public events, usually those with extensive army experience. Yet the only recollection I have of American Jews entertaining such an idea was Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League followers, who during the 1960s and 1970s patrolled once-thriving Jewish neighborhoods that by then had become crime-ridden.
Lest it be assumed that only the Orthodox were anxious, the 1,200 scholars that I joined at the major academic Jewish studies conference that took place on the West Coast, were informed that at considerable cost extra security measures had been set in place. Above and beyond the hotel staff, a bevy of private guards were hired who stood at strategic locations throughout the convention halls. Unlike in the past, those who forgot to wear the official badge of the conference with name and affiliation identification, were forbidden access to the lectures and public events.
Perhaps even more telling was the theme of the opening plenary session, “Does the History of Anti-Semitism Tell Us Anything about Its Future?” It featured a public discussion between two prominent academicians, a historian of American Jewish life, and the author of an award-winning tome on the evolution of Anti-Judaism in Western society. The former noted that when choosing an area of specialization during graduate studies, concentrating on anti-Semitism was never a serious option. It seemed anachronistic and barely relevant to contemporary realities. Admittedly, they opined, recent events had raised questions regarding this prior naivete.
Sitting and listening to the thought-provoking discussion, I recalled that just a few years earlier the planning committee dedicated a similarly high-profile slot to the popular Amazon Television series, Transparent – a decision that was met with some degree of controversy. The show revolves around the lives of a twenty-first century Los Angeles Jewish family. The father is a retired UCLA political scientist who subsequently came out identifying and dressing as a woman. One of the main characters in the early seasons was the female rabbi of their temple, and numerous scenes depict how the various family members, all leading very contemporary lifestyles, navigate Jewish holidays and practices. No doubt, this too highlighted increasingly visible aspects of contemporary American Jewish life. Yet juxtaposed with this year’s discussion of anti-Semitism – which was the most populated academic session of the entire conference – the urgency and broadly-expressed concern that enveloped the 2019 event was palpable.
The conference took place during the week after President Trump had announced his new executive order aimed, he and his supporters argued, at shielding Jews from discrimination – especially on college campuses – by penalizing the perpetrators and institutions that tolerated them. Reflective of the deep political divisions within American Jewish life, the efficacy and viability of this decision was the subject of animated debate, both at the opening session and at meals and informal settings throughout the week. While some appreciated the aims and overall efforts, others felt that it was disingenuous coming from a figure who in other circumstances fomented or at least tolerated open anti-Semitic behavior and discourse. Still others, expressed concern that the definition of Jewishness adopted by the authors of the executive order, which emphasized racial elements, would further isolate Jews rather than protect them.
On the second Shabbat, I lectured at a large Modern Orthodox synagogue in New York City, whose full-block façade sits at a major metropolitan cross-section. Veteran affiliates stand at each street corner in freezing temperatures scanning the vicinity for possible threats, while a professional armed watchman is stationed in the middle of the grand staircase that abounds the structure. In fact, the completion of a new security assessment and issuance of additional measures were announced from the rostrum. I discovered, moreover, that here too numerous members were in the process of gaining handgun training and guidance toward licensing, this time under the official auspices of the congregation.
Upon landing in Israel I learned that on Friday, December 20th, a contingent of male students and faculty from the Upper East Side of Manhattan’s Ramaz School (full-disclosure: I’m an alumnus) made their way across the Hudson River to their Jewish neighbors in Jersey City. A video was posted on YouTube that first shows the boys carrying boxes of Hanukkah gifts for the Satmar Hasidic families that live there and whose community members had been killed and injured. The visitors then hunkered down in a private living room where a young Hasidic boy described the live-shooter event as he experienced it in a school building adjacent to the targeted kosher store. Summing up the visit, the adult Satmar host thanked the students for their acts of kindness and solidarity, “at a time when you see such extreme hate, the gesture and emotional support, just knowing that we are all together and that all the Jews unite at times of need is amazing.”
Both the beauty and irony of this event are inescapable. Ramaz and Satmar are at polar extremes of the Orthodox spectrum. The former promotes exposure to all forms of secular knowledge and culture. Its relatively heterogeneous student body encompasses fully-observant, traditional non-observant, and secular Israelis. It strives for its graduates to gain acceptance to America’s most elite universities, ideally attending after a year of study at an Israeli Torah institution that celebrates the ongoing development of Jewish sovereignty on its historic homeland. Numerous alumni also volunteer to serve in the Israeli army.
The Satmar Hasidism, by contrast, stem from the Hungarian factions that were most vigilant in rejecting modern culture, and, in parallel, ostracized nonobservant Jews. In America, they have cultivated enclaves where they can disconnect from both non-Jewish society and their fellow Jewish brethren. Their most venomous diatribes demonize the “Zionist entity,” whose very existence, they attest, is the central cause for the delay of the final redemption.
Under other circumstances, one might interpret this meeting of long-alienated brothers — “moderate Hellenizers” and “fervent zealots” – as a contemporary Hanukkah miracle. Yet, the impetus for this display came from the outside, a response to a violent common enemy rather than a celebration of shared values or heritage. Utilizing the phrases coined by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, it is a “covenant of fate” with no “covenant of destiny” in the offing. As such, the more profound take-home is the degree to which this encounter, two days before the first candle of Hanukkah 2019, magnifies the broad-based concerns over anti-Semitic dangers that have emerged among American Jewry.