Ron Wolfson

My Hanukkah Post Goes Viral

Why such an outpouring? Is it the story itself or is something else at play?

As a professor of Jewish education, I hear from contacts all over the country that many Jewish people are afraid in ways different in magnitude and type than ever before. Mostly because of the rise in antisemitism and anti-Zionism that has reared up recently, some people are taking down mezuzahs from their doorposts, reducing or eliminating public displays of Hanukkah menorahs, and refraining from wearing Jewish symbols.

What then explains the extraordinary response to the recent Facebook post I intended as simply a cute reminiscence of a story about the Hanukkah celebrations and decorations of my youth? On the fifth day of Hanukkah at 5:17 a.m., I posted the story. When I checked for comments a few hours later, there were a dozen or so comments and some 30 “likes.” Then, remarkably, the post went viral over the next few days: 18,000 “likes,” a “reach” of nearly half a million, and most remarkably, 1,540 shares. In all my years on Facebook, nothing I have posted has attracted anywhere near this level of response.  

Why such an outpouring? Is it the story itself or is something else at play?

I titled the post: “Hanukkah Envy”. To combat “Christmas envy” caused by the overwhelming public displays of Christmas in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska in the 1950’s, my mother went all-out on Hanukkah celebration, especially presents every night. A neighbor called to complain that I, seven years old, had bragged to her son about getting presents for eight nights, not just one day. So far, so anodyne.

The more likely stimulus for this unexpected response: the photo accompanying the story. The image is of a house decked out in over-the-top Hanukkah decorations: an illuminated menorah, dreidels, and Happy Hanukkah sign on the front lawn, Stars of David on the front door and hundreds of twinkly lights outlining every window, door, sidewalk and roof of the place.

There have been nearly 200 comments. The first were questions: “Is that your house?” No, it is not. I was brought up with a Yiddish warning, roughly translated as “Be a Jew at home, not on the street.” Mom never let us leave the house wearing a yarmulke, the traditional head covering, when walking the few blocks up the street to our synagogue. She never put our Hanukkah menorah in the window which some families tentatively did, following the rabbinic instruction to “publicize the miracle” celebrated during the holiday. Why the caution? We Jews of Omaha were a distinct minority and there was antisemitism lurking in the shadows.

The scourge of antisemitism has come out of those shadows with a ferocity that has shocked the Jewish community, especially since the unspeakable horrors of the Oct. 7 massacre by Hamas in Israel, the worst episode of violence against the Jewish people since the Holocaust. People are deeply worried about the situation in Israel and the rise of Jewish hate in this country and around the world. Many are scared and confused, shocked that they feel this way. Not so long ago, my mother’s cautions of 70 years earlier would likely have been dismissed by most American Jews as unnecessary, nearly everyone feeling safe and secure in this land where religious liberty is enshrined in our Constitution, celebrated and respected. As the joyous holiday of Hanukkah approached, in some quarters and in some homes, there was serious conversation about the advisability of public displays of Jewishness.

An example. A few weeks before the beginning of the holiday on December 7, I was sent a photo of a storefront window in Disneyland that was quite remarkable. The Jewish Disney fan who shared it remarked she had never, ever seen such a sight in all the many years she had visited with her young kids during the holiday season. The window was filled with Disney-themed gear for Hanukkah: blue and white Mickey Mouse ears, backpacks featuring Mickey and Minnie peeking over a Hanukkah menorah, and a “Celebrating Hanukkah” t-shirt featuring the Disney characters playing dreidel. She was super excited to see this first-ever nod to the Jewish holiday in the park that Walt built. Her kids, 13 and 10, wanted nothing to do with it, too afraid to wear the Hanukkah swag walking down Main Street U.S.A.

With all this trepidation in the community, perhaps the reason my story went viral is simply that the post makes people smile. It gives them a reason to share a happy Jewish moment during these difficult times, a kind of “menorah in the window” of Facebook. Are the thousands of thumbs-up and smiley faces constituting a communal validation? Perhaps the thousand people who rushed to share the story and the image of the decked-out Jewish home with their Facebook friends consider it a source of joy. It just might be that they feel like part of something bigger as it went viral, a way for them to spread the light.

For some, the outpouring seems to be a statement of resolve, a way to reclaim the right to publicly celebrate Jewishness, a way to counter, for example, the destruction of a public-facing Hanukkah menorah in Oakland, California. Does it demonstrate how collectively we are brighter than we can imagine? Amazingly, the light expressed in these responses is not just Jewish; dozens of comments are from many folks who are allies, sharing their joy in looking at our glow, celebrating our joining in the spirit of the holiday season. One commentator wrote: “This year, I changed my Christmas décor from green and red to blue and white silver in solidarity with Israel. I should have bought a menorah to match the look.” The comment has received 344 likes and hearts.

For the 18,000 people on Facebook and countless others who saw the shares of the post, this year’s Hanukkah appears to have had the power to pierce the darkness, to encourage all of us to stand up against hate, and to assert our personal and communal Jewish pride. 

Surprisingly, this simple story about Hanukkah decorations turned into something much more significant. For the 18,000 people on Facebook and countless others who saw the shares of the post, this year’s Hanukkah appears to have had the power to pierce the darkness, to encourage all of us to stand up against hate, and to assert our personal and communal Jewish pride.

Published December 22, 2023, in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal

About the Author
Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Jewish Education, American Jewish University, author of Relational Judaism, The Spirituality of Welcoming, God’s To-Do List, The Seven Questions You're Asked in Heaven, the Art of Jewish Living series, co-author The Relational Judaism Handbook, Creating Sacred Communities, and Raising A+ Human Beings. Co-founder of Synagogue 3000 and President, Kripke Institute.