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Hanukkah has become a 'frightening time' for many Jews in a polarized U.S.

Beth Richman lights up her menorah in her home in Portland, Ore. Like many in the American Jewish community, Richman is concerned about the rising currents of antisemitism. She says putting her electric menorah in her window feels like an important act of resistance.
Toni Greaves for NPR
Beth Richman lights up her menorah in her home in Portland, Ore. Like many in the American Jewish community, Richman is concerned about the rising currents of antisemitism. She says putting her electric menorah in her window feels like an important act of resistance.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Every Hanukkah, Beth Richman sets up her electric menorah in the kitchen window of her Portland, Ore., home.

"It's very '70s, and it's kind of faux silver," Richman says, laughing. "It's plastic and it has these blue- and white-tipped light bulbs."

Give the candles a twist and they light up. It's kitschy and sweet, and fills the window with light.

But in recent years, this public display has felt different.

"The Proud Boys marched through this neighborhood," Richman says quietly. "And so having the menorah does feel riskier, absolutely. And this year, with what's happening on the global stage with Twitter deregulating, it's frightening. It's a frightening time."

Richman is a clinical social worker in private practice and says that in professional circles her colleagues are noting the stress and anxiety Jewish clients are carrying this year.

Jacob Ari Labendz directs the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo College. He says this fear is widespread.

"It seems that right now —I think quite understandably —much of the American Jewish community is concerned about what seems to be rising currents of antisemitism," he said.

What counts as antisemitism can be debated — from direct attacks to hate speech to criticism of Israel. But overall, the Anti Defamation League counted the highest number of antisemitic incidents ever last year. And says this year looks on track to be the same.

"Shortly after the Holocaust, there's been a bipartisan commitment to anti antisemitism in this country," explains Labendz. "It didn't mean that people didn't have misgivings about Jews, that they weren't ambivalent about Jews. But it meant that in polite society, we were committed to seeing Jews as fully American."

And Labendz is worried that may be changing.

"I am concerned more broadly than white nationalism, about the rise of, and the normalization of it, and the mainstreaming of a certain fascist politics, a certain doubt in democracy, a certain closing in of the borders around who is in and who is out. And having said that, it's hard to judge just how bad things are, when Jews expect things to be excellent in America."

There is a phrase that dates back to the Babylonian Talmud, pirsumei nisa, that tells Jews to "publicize the miracle." It refers to Hanukkah, and also Passover and Purim. David Shyovitz is an associate professor of history and director of Northwestern University's Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies. He says those three holidays were chosen for a reason.

"These are stories where Jewish visibility, where Jewish difference from the surrounding culture, is causing problems and leads to threats," he said.

And there have been many times when celebrating those stories would not have been safe. Whether you're talking about the Spanish Inquisition or Nazi Germany. But Shyovitz says it could also serve as a human moment, and show people who their neighbors are.

"Jewish observance is supposed to create connections," explains Shyovitz. "Connections in the Jewish home, within the Jewish community, within Jewish institutions — but also between all of those things and the broader non-Jewish world."

Many American Jews have stories of antisemitism, of hiding and survival in their family histories. Labendz, whose grandparents met on the boat to America when fleeing Germany after Kristallnacht, says recent events can echo those past traumas. Hateful tweets, synagogue shootings, a former president hosting white nationalists remind people of danger they hoped was in the past.

In upstate New York during WWII, Beth Richman's grandparents had a brick thrown through their window. She says putting her little electric menorah up in her Portland window feels like an important act of resistance.

"We do have to light up our identities," says Richman. "We do have to light up the awareness that we have warmth and light and beauty during this time of year as well."

Lighting a candle — or twisting a bulb — is a way of literally identifying yourself. But also a way of kindling a light in dark times. And welcoming others to do the same.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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