Despite disturbing events, Chattanooga Jews vow to celebrate Hanukkah as they would any other year

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Rabbi Craig Lewis speaks in front of a large electric menorah during a ceremony celebrating the third night of Hanukkah at the Mizpah Congregation in 2022.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Rabbi Craig Lewis speaks in front of a large electric menorah during a ceremony celebrating the third night of Hanukkah at the Mizpah Congregation in 2022.

Rabbi Craig Lewis of Chattanooga's Mizpah Congregation has deployed the large inflatable dreidels outside his house.

"It's a way of taking something that's in the cultural zeitgeist this time of year and making it specifically Jewish," he said by phone Wednesday.

He said the tradition is to put the menorah in the window, which he also plans to do.

"But the value of the tradition," he said, "is to make it publicly known that we are proud to be Jewish, and we know that we've been through adversity, but we are still here. And we are going to keep that light shining."

Does Hanukkah, which commences at sundown Thursday, feel different this year? In one sense, yes, Lewis said.

The Oct. 7 terrorist attack in Israel shook Jews around the world, and reports of antisemitic incidents abound in the U.S. In a few discrete cases, Lewis said, his congregants have asked if, given security concerns, they should even be publicly displaying their menorah in their windows, traditionally an act meant in part to demonstrate Jewish pride.

He said he recommends people do what makes them feel safe. Still, he and others agreed that, ultimately, it's important that world events not diminish the holiday celebration. Oct. 7, he recalled, was the holiday Simchat Torah, marking the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah readings.

"By the time that we were celebrating the holiday here, we already knew a great deal of what was happening in Israel," he said.

He said his congregation didn't really feel like dancing. But its members felt an obligation to do so on behalf of those who couldn't.

The Rabbi Shaul Perlstein, who's helping organize Chattanooga's public Hanukkah on Ice event set to take place Sunday evening, said in a phone interview that he's received letters from people telling him they will make a particular point of attending this year — even as other letters inquired about the event's security.

He said he knows people in Israel would want them to celebrate with enthusiasm.

"Hanukkah is Hanukkah," he said, "and I'm sure once the lights are burning and once the music is playing, we're going to feel like it's Hanukkah any other year."

(READ MORE: On one night of Hanukkah, a Chattanooga Jewish couple considers their past)

The Hanukkah story references miraculous events of the past that helped Jews overcome oppression and steep odds to persist.

In honor of this, Jews across the world will for eight days light the menorah, eat latkes — potato pancakes — and gather and celebrate their persistence through the generations.

The Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which left a reported 1,200 dead, is still raw. And Lewis said the Jewish community is far from united in its views on the proper way for Israel to establish security for the Jewish state, whose military campaign in Gaza has left more than 16,000 people dead and is viewed by many with profound skepticism.

Carter Jordan, a student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said his own views on the conflict wax and wane and he's become wary of misinformation. He said he has a lot of Muslim friends and feels the need to tread carefully in discussing the conflict, but that he doesn't really regard this as a bad thing. He said he hears from, say, cousins at other schools about the antisemitism they have experienced.

"And I'm like, 'My life hasn't really changed that much,'" he said by phone, describing his day-to-day life at school, surrounded by friends at the library.

(READ MORE: What to know about Hanukkah and how it's celebrated around the world)

Still, he said his mother was born in Israel and recently moved to Chattanooga, and when he visits her, they discuss the conflict in Gaza.

He said his mom reads the news and oscillates between showing Jewish pride publicly — through say, a blue and white-tinged wreath lightly referencing the Israeli flag — and not doing so, for reasons of safety.

"I'm like, 'You're probably fine, Mom; it's Chattanooga.' The worst I've seen are the flyers, and that just kind of went away," Jordan said, in reference to antisemitic flyers that got posted around the university campus in late 2022.

Jordan's plans for Hanukkah remain vague; he'll have latkes, light the menorah.

"We typically keep it pretty simple," he said. "We don't go all out, we don't go crazy. I know my mom's been wanting to go to temple ever since she moved to the area. So maybe we'll try to do that this year."

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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