Our Sages taught: The Hanukkah lamp — it is a commandment to place it at the door of one’s house, on the outside. And if one lives in an attic, place it in a window adjoining the public area. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21a)
Placing a Hanukkah menorah in the front window of one’s house isn’t a way to compete with the Joneses next door and their electricity-guzzling Christmas light display. No, it is a rabbinic mandate. It is how we fulfill our obligations as members of the Jewish people celebrating an ancient, but relatively minor, holiday.
The story of Hanukkah is complex, and its central characters, the Maccabees, aren’t necessarily the benevolent heroes we make them out to be. At its core, Hanukkah is a story about the universal and the particular, and battle staged between the two. From the fundamentalist Maccabees, who criticized not only the king Antiochus and his rules, but their own Jewish neighbors who assimilated, adopting Hellenist culture and custom, to the Jews of Enlightenment-age Europe, who put their faith in lofty but ultimately flawed and exclusionary notions of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Perhaps the most well-known such theory is the declaration of nineteenth-century Russian Jewish thinker Judah Leib Gordon: “Be a Jew in your home and a man outside of it.”
Hiding one’s identity is both a privilege and a burden, one that many people do not enjoy or bear. When your identity is linked with your skin color, when the discrimination you face is connected to the wheelchair that aids your daily mobility, you cannot simply decide when to present as your particular self and when to present as what our nation calls a “person.” A person is what Jews like Gordon wanted to be: an individual living in a nation-state influenced by Enlightenment philosophy deemed worthy of possessing rights. Read: White. Read: Male. Read: Christian (or, at least, not markedly Jewish). Read: Moneyed. Read: Educated. Read: Propertied…
But this is not what Hanukkah teaches us about our Jewish identity, at least not now, centuries removed from the Maccabees. A holiday that might have been celebrated with military parades and an emphasis on conformity has become one of the most-celebrated holidays in the Jewish diaspora, including among secular- and culturally-identified Jews. It has morphed to incorporate traditions of surrounding cultures, like gift-giving, while also retaining its Jewish specificity.
In our home, Hanukkah is a chance to talk about visibility and privacy. As a queer parent, a convert to Judaism, and the ima (mom) to a non-binary child, I teach about bravery, resilience, and humility. We emphasize not the might of a military rebellion, but the miracle of the oil that unexpectedly lasted, just like the Jewish people. We use this as an opportunity to talk about the sources of sustenance, both within ourselves, our inner strength, and externally, like the support and acceptance of one community for another. We speak about the bravery it requires to risk being truthful about ourselves and resisting the pressure to hide what makes us unique to make things easier in the broader culture. We use this as an opportunity to talk about being “out,” welcoming our non-Jewish and non-queer friends and family and neighbors into our traditions (not during COVID, but usually at our annual glo-stick Hanukkah party).
But we do not use Hanukkah as an opportunity to pressure anyone to reveal an identity that is risky, and we always note that some people cannot, like the Maccabees, hide safely in a cave until they are ready to battle for something for which no one should ever have to battle: a recognition of their unique humanity, and the opportunity to live their truth in every single realm.
This, too, emerges from Talmud: “In times of danger, one places [the menorah] on their table, and it is sufficient” (Shabbat 21a).
The rabbis outline the ideal way to light the Hanukkah menorah: first and foremost, we are invited to place it at our door, the border between private and public, inside and outside. We are to place it in a highly-trafficked or at the very least visible location: in the attic window so that the people across the way will see it, or in the courtyard where all travelers will notice. And yet, the rabbis also offer an alternative: that, when visibility proves too high a risk, we keep our light to ourselves.
The thing is, the Talmud does not say, “when you’re scared, don’t worry about it; just keep the menorah hidden away.” It says, rather, “in times of danger,” you can still fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) of the holiday without risking life and limb.
How can we determine whether we are living in “a time of danger”? As a queer parent and parent of a queer child, I think it’s connected to privilege and security. Secure in my identity and living situation, I have the privilege of so-called white skin and status, the privilege of a life that looks fairly normative from the outside (a wife, two kids, a cat). I spend that privilege by proudly placing our menorahs in the window, where our neighbors across the way can see and note that we are Jewish. I spend that privilege by educating others and welcoming them into our celebrations, virtual if need be.
Hanukkah has the potential to enlighten us, as Jews, to the struggles others face when they cannot hide the parts of themselves that others denigrate. It has the potential to enlighten us to the privilege and the blessing that it is to be able to say: I deserve to be Jewish and count as a person. So should all with whom we share this globe.