On Thursday, November 30th, Columbia University held its annual Tree Lighting Ceremony. As my friends and I joined hundreds of students gathered in the center of campus to watch a cappella performances, enjoy winter desserts, and witness College Walk being illuminated, anti-Israel protesters interrupted the holiday celebrations. Chanting punctuated the festivities: “There’s no room for celebration, end Israeli occupation” and signs billowed reading “Joy is Canceled.”
I have come to expect this behavior on and around campus. I catch my breath each time I walk out of class to the sounds of students jeering anti-Zionist propaganda and antisemitic tropes. No matter how many times I am faced with their callous chants, their words still sting and I find myself filled with frustration, sadness, and fear. While the presence of protesters on campus has become a regular occurrence, this one hit a nerve in a new way for me.
There are no words that adequately describe how devastatingly difficult these past two months have been. My friends, family, and the country that I called home even before I lived there this past year are under attack. Most days, I find it nearly impossible to turn off the news, as I hold my breath waiting for relief that never comes. Most days, I struggle to find joy.
However, now more than ever, it is important to find joy in life and to go on living, in honor of all those lost and in defiance of all those trying to kill the rest of us. How can I say that we must enjoy life when so many others have lost theirs? Well, in the Talmud, the Rabbis raise a question: If a funeral procession and a wedding procession meet at a crossroads, which shall proceed first? According to Jewish law, the funeral procession must yield to the wedding procession and Judaism teaches that we must always lead with life. It is from this that we learn joy takes precedence over grief.
For two months, my parents have been reminding me of the importance of holding onto joy during these difficult times because we as humans cannot survive without hope. They have urged me to find causes for celebration as an act of life-affirming defiance. Finally, I was inspired to find a cause for joy within my own community at Columbia, a community that has been such a source of frustration and fear for me as of late. What better place than the Tree Lighting Ceremony, a holiday celebration dedicated to uplifting spirits on campus, for me and my friends to enjoy a moment of happiness and relief from the constant weight of our grief and misery? But instead of celebration, we were met with resistance, and faced with the very question I seek to answer: can we make room for joy during a time of such devastation? It was at that moment that I knew I had reached the crossroads. It was time to finally decide which would take precedence at this intersection of my heart: grief, frustration, and despair or joy, celebration, and life. And I found myself choosing the latter.
This past week, as I prepared to fly across the country and return home to my family for the first time since October 7th, I was filled with immense gratitude for the opportunity to join my family to celebrate my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah. Still, my whole family was reckoning with the dichotomy between joy and grief ahead of the Bat Mitzvah. The celebration was supposed to be a joyous day for us, we would gather with all our friends and family from America and Israel to mark my cousin becoming a Jewish adult. But because of the ongoing war, we also felt the sobering and serious cloud that hangs over us, and we understood that aunts, uncles, and cousins who had planned to come would no longer be able to join us. But amidst our grief, we chose to find joy and to lead with life. Even in the face of destruction, death, and despair, my family is determined to be the light. We danced, we sang, we prayed, and we demonstrated that the Jewish people will not be broken by the world.
For as long as the Jewish people have been alive, there have been those who aim to destroy us; but we are still here. There is an old joke that all Jewish holidays can be defined as such: they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat! I do not make light of the hard truth that our enemies have time and time again succeeded in destroying Jewish lives; we have lost too many souls to the brutality of antisemitism. And in battling Hamas and protecting the world from future attacks and threats by Hamas’ leadership, more Israeli and Palestinian lives are being lost each day. And yet, we remain a resilient nation and a resolved people. We have, we can, and we must persevere; the Jewish spirit has survived the worst and always endured. We will not be destroyed. We must take the time to mourn the lives the world has lost. There will always be cause for grief in the world, but we must not let it consume us. We cannot cancel joy, especially in times of devastation; for without joy, there is no cause for life. As we mark the first Hanukkah since the massacre of October 7th, we are reminded of our people’s timeless tradition to bring light into the darkness and find moments of joy.