This year’s overlap of the Jewish and Gregorian calendars has landed Hanukkah directly on top of Christmas. While also inspiring many pithy mashup titles, this has helped illustrate a truth that undercuts one of the polite fictions of Jewish life in America: that Hanukkah would look anything like how we celebrate it today if Christmas came in July.
2016 has been a year of peeling away (sometimes more forcibly than others) many of the polite and aspirational fictions that we tell ourselves as Jews and as Americans. One of those fictions was, “The American people would never elect Donald Trump as President.” Another was, “The days of anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head on a national campaign trail are behind us.” As these fictions have peeled away, we have been left with uncomfortable truths. One of those truths is the state of the American Left, a comeuppance that is probably over a decade overdue, and one which was put off by the electoral successes of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Since it is the season for gift buying, the question must be asked, “What is the best sort of Hanukkah gift to give someone you care for?” I can only speak from experience, and share the most meaningful Hanukkah gift I have ever received. It was the winter of 2004, my freshman year of high school. My paternal grandfather, born in the Jewish neighborhood of Rogers Park in Chicago in 1933, gave me three vinyl records from the 1930s/1940s. They were a Woody Guthrie album, a Huey Ledbetter album, and a folk compilation album. I had expressed a passing interest in some of the old folk records he had played for me up to that point. This was his way of reaching out and putting my continued education in American Folk Music in my own hands. These records were the tinder and spark that have ignited a lifelong appreciation for folk music within me.
There are always moments when a passing interest evolves into a passionate interest. Listening to “Mr. Hitler” by Huey Ledbetter was that moment for me and folk music. Hearing the lyrics, “When Hitler started out, he took the Jews from their homes…” landed my jaw on the floor, where it remained until the closing stanza. I knew that the folk musicians of the Left were anti-Fascist, but having grown up in the 1990s/2000s, I never assumed that would extend to any sympathy for Jews. This was because by the time I was coming of age, the American Left had become schizophrenic in many ways, claiming to stand for so many contradictory stances that it was hard to take them seriously.
The American Left of my youth stood for democracy in theory, but not for doing anything to promote it or defend it. They were for boycotting Israel over what they saw as unfair conditions but against boycotting Cuba. They called George W. Bush a devil but couldn’t muster the moral fiber to criticize Vladimir Putin. They claimed to love the LGBTQIA+ community but openly supported foreign regimes that murder, as a point of law, any open homosexuals.
Coming to maturity in a political climate where I felt like I was either viewed as a model minority on the right (and the bearer of awkward apocalyptic expectations from certain Evangelicals) or was demanded to be some version of self-effacing (if not outright self-hating) on the left, I felt as if there was no American politics that represented me. Learning about the working peoples of the mid-century American Left, and the folk musicians they inspired, gave me hope that what once existed might exist again in some form (a desire that parallels many elements from the Hanukkah story).
The American Left has forgotten its roots: supporting working people, supporting democracy, and violently opposing fascism. You can see that borne out in its abysmal electoral showings over the past 25 years (especially in Congress) and more recently in its abandonment of the peoples of Syria, Georgia and Ukraine to fight fascism alone. There was a time when the American Left were lobbying Congress so that they, regular Americans, could go fight Fascism and Franco in Spain. Because being a part of the left meant standing up for freedom-loving people all over the world. It meant standing against fascism wherever it reared its ugly head. That passion for freedom for Spain and its people inspired songs and writings that are still relevant to this day, such as For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.
So, what is the best sort of Hanukkah gift to give? The sort that will leave them questioning the world for years to come, lighting a spark of interest in learning and activism that can grow into a flame of enlightenment. Because a great gift is not unlike the oil in the Hanukkah story – however small it may be, it has the potential to light a flame that will burn far longer than anyone thought possible.
Questioning and standing up to totalitarian authority, even when it is dangerous or difficult to do so, is something that is central to the Festival of Lights. I wonder how many bombed-out buildings in Syria are filled, right now, with people trying to get enough fuel together to have a fire to light their nights. I wonder how many fewer there would be if we had a Left wing in this country that remembered its roots.