Embracing Holiday Lights during the Pandemic

It’s nearly a week since I lit the last Hanukkah candles. As I watched the glowing lights of the Hanukkiah flickering on the windowsill against the winter sky, I reflected on the holiday’s inspiring message of hope and resilience during times of fear and darkness.

These days I often look across the street at my neighbors’ home with its Christmas decorations. During these difficult COVID-19 days when dismal winter nights seem particularly dark, I enjoy gazing at the lights that adorn their home. I derive special pleasure from the large inflatable snowmen that illuminate their front yard, providing a welcome distraction from the latest, grim coronavirus statistics.

Until recently, though, Christmas decorations would have triggered something entirely different: an uncomfortable childhood memory intensified during the past four years. It’s a memory recalled by Charlottesville, the Tree of Life Synagogue, swastikas, and other symbols of virulent anti-Semitism, racial hatred, religious bigotry, and divisiveness experienced across the U.S.

It is a memory that also made me question whether I was still an outsider in America, even though my family has lived in the U.S. since the turn of the 20th century — and has been committed to the American public square for generations.

From seventh through 12th grade, I attended a public, all-female exam school in Boston. Each December, the school was decked out with Christmas decorations. In music class, we sang Christmas carols such as “Joy to the World,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Silent Night,” which I still know by heart. And like most of my Jewish classmates (approximately one-third of our class), I chose to be excused from the annual Christmas pageant, with its crèche and religious themes.

One year, in response to a Jewish student’s request, a homeroom teacher gave permission to hang Hanukkah decorations at the back of the classroom. But the following day, a brouhaha ensued when the school head (allegedly at the bequest of a parent) marched into the classroom demanding that everyone responsible for the decorations stand up and remove them – and which the students dutifully did in deference to authority. News of the incident quickly spread to those of us in other classrooms even though it was an era before cellphones or social media.

When her daughter recounted the incident, one Jewish mother took action and spoke truth to power. She contacted the ADL which interviewed each young woman to corroborate the story, and then reprimanded the headmaster. All holiday decorations came to an end although, as I recall, the Christmas pageant continued throughout my high school years.

Today, as I affix my eyes on my neighbors’ Christmas decorations, a smile comes to my face. No longer do I dwell on that school incident from bygone times.

Instead, I take pride in the viral Hanukkah video of Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris and her Jewish husband, Douglas Emhoff, with its message of light and joy. I reflect how high school and college students in Boston and cities across the United States today speak truth to power, standing up to racism, bullying, discrimination, and micro-aggression from teachers and students due to their race, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

As we enter 2021, I am optimistic that we can finally begin to heal from the global pandemic, racial strife, antisemitism, bigotry, and political divisions. As I look at those nearby holiday lights, the words of one of my favorite Hanukkah songs come to mind, Banu choshech legaresh, beyadeinu or va’esh (We have come to drive away the darkness, in our hands light and fire). And I reflect how each of us can do our part to drive away darkness in order to bring light for a brighter future and a kinder, more compassionate, and loving world. That’s my hope for tomorrow.

About the Author
Paula Jacobs is a Boston area writer. She has published in a variety of digital and print publications including Tablet Magazine, the Forward, and The Jerusalem Post.
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