Opinion

Hanukkah a celebration of religious freedom and light in a time when hate, darkness hit home

Hanukkah is a festival of lights and a celebration of the triumph of the few over the many — but Joanne Seiff says this year, the celebration of survival and light over intolerance and darkness strikes closer to home than many would like.

Following Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, rise in hate crimes, the festival of light has added significance

A painted rock found on Oct. 31, 2018, part of a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed during worship just days before. As Jews celebrate Hanukkah this year, 'the celebration of survival and light over intolerance and darkness strikes closer to home than many would like,' says Joanne Seiff. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

My family went to a big celebration on the first night of Hanukkah this year and we had a great time. At the entrance to the parking lot, a security officer patrolled. As we left, two marked police cars idled nearby.

Hanukkah is a festival of lights, a celebration of religious freedom and a triumph of the few over the many. This year, the celebration of survival and light over intolerance and darkness strikes closer to home than many would like.

According to data in both Canada and the U.S., anti-Semitic hate crimes have risen alarmingly. For a small minority, Jewish Canadians shoulder a disproportionate amount of intolerance.

The sad part is that while for the majority of Canadians this is news, for Jewish Canadians, it's just part of being Jewish.

While others attend places of worship without considering security measures, for Jews, they're central to how we gather.

At Jewish buildings and gatherings, experts offer consultations about how many locked doors and exits are available.  How visible are the people at worship or the school children at play? Committees tasked with safety ask if we can offer one more layer of protection to the community.

A vigil in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, to remember the victims of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue earlier that day. For Jews, concerns about security at places of worship are 'central to how we gather,' says Joanne Seiff. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

When U.S. President Donald Trump called for armed security in Jewish congregations after the October massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, many decried it as an invasion of holy space and an absolutely unfair expectation.

The sad truth is that for many Jewish congregations, armed guards outside the building were already a part of every large gathering.

The only surprising thing? Christian North Americans, members of the majority culture, had no idea that this was already a reality. The biggest struggle for many Jewish organizations is figuring out a way to pay for the security that we need.

In Europe, nearly all synagogues, Jewish community centres and schools have armed guards, metal detectors and locked doors.

Hate doesn't just happen 'somewhere else'

When I moved to Winnipeg from Kentucky, I was thrilled to put my menorah in the window. This tradition, shining the lights of Hanukkah out to illuminate the darkness, was something that we had considered unsafe in a place with an active Ku Klux Klan.

I learned my lesson after just one night. Our house was egged. The eggs were thrown right up on the window where the menorah had been placed.

It wasn't such a big deal, but the eggs froze on the side of our house and onto our windows. We were stuck looking at it until the weather warmed enough to wash it off.

A Winnipeg family found this rock, covered in anti-Semitic slurs, left on their front steps on Dec. 31, 2016. 'Many want to say that hate always happens somewhere else,' says Joanne Seiff. (Submitted)

Many want to say that hate always happens somewhere else. Eleven people were killed in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, though, in the same place I was in Winnipeg that day — a synagogue.

The next morning, I took my kids to the new accessible playground near the Pan Am pool to blow off steam. As we left, I looked over at the Pan Am Pool building and saw graffiti on a mechanical room door.

What was it? A big Jewish star with a swastika inside it.

We went to report it at the pool. I called the police, and I know several others did as well. The Pan Am Pool employees acted quickly. It was painted over — but there was a hate symbol in public, directly across from where children play, where seniors live in highrises and where students attend high school.

Subtle discrimination

Some kinds of prejudice and discrimination can be much more subtle.

A week after the deaths in Pittsburgh, someone invited me to put my business in a North American shopping guide that highlighted women's businesses. She asked to list whether the business was owned by a minority. I'm proud to be Jewish and love observing my religious holidays (even relatively minor ones on our religious calendar, like Hanukkah).

However, there's no doubt about it, Judaism is a minority religion in Canada. I ticked off the box and listed "Jewish" and also explained I was a dual citizen, since I moved to Canada in 2009.

When the guide came out, I felt excited to see my listing — and then somewhat shocked. Where other minorities were listed as "woman of colour" or "LGBT," my listing said "Immigrant, Other." That was it.

Despite this rise in violence and hate, I hear Jewish people all around me celebrating. We're very lucky to be able to observe Hanukkah's message of religious freedom in relative peace here.- Joanne Seiff

After all this, it was easier to "other" me than to print "Jewish" or to even contact me and let me know that the publisher was not comfortable listing my minority religious status. (Many assume that being Jewish is a privileged status. It makes them uncomfortable to admit that Jews face issues of discrimination and hate crimes as non-Christians in North America.)

These experiences aren't life-threatening. This isn't a list of those in my family who've died or suffered due to their religious affiliation, though I could easily create such a list. Rather, it's a normal sidebar on the traditional "holiday story."

The first night of Hanukkah was celebrated at the Jewish Learning Centre in Winnipeg on Dec. 2. 'Despite this rise in violence and hate, I hear Jewish people all around me celebrating,' says Joanne Seiff. 'We're very lucky to be able to observe Hanukkah's message of religious freedom in relative peace here.' (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Hanukkah has been great so far this year for my household! We've seen friends, eaten lots of unhealthy foods cooked in oil, lit menorahs, sung fun songs and played games together. Our kids ran around with their small presents, lighting up the darkened living room with their "bug lights" and attaching them to toys and elbows.

However, my holiday will be over soon. It's not a green and red one, it doesn't commemorate the birth of a child, and it doesn't involve huge amounts of shopping, church-going, or carol-singing.

This doesn't make me a Grinch or a grouch. It makes me part of a proud Canadian religious minority — even as majority culture emphasizes a different holiday tradition.

Despite this rise in violence and hate, I hear Jewish people all around me celebrating. We're very lucky to be able to observe Hanukkah's message of religious freedom in relative peace here.

It could be much worse.

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About the Author

Joanne Seiff

Joanne Seiff is the author of three books. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.