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This Hanukkah, Jewish Louisvillians find different meanings in the Festival of Lights

People young and old light menorahs laid out on a long table
Divya Karthikeyan
Families light menorahs they brought from home to the Adath Jeshurun Hanukkah celebration on Dec. 7, 2023 .

Hanukkah this year came as the world’s eyes were trained on fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. In Louisville, Jewish residents said they couldn’t ignore that context as they marked the holiday.

From family-focused celebrations to an interfaith peace vigil calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, members of the city’s Jewish community are expressing their faith in myriad ways.

Cantor David Lipp leads the Adath Jeshurun synagogue in Louisville. On the first night of Hanukkah, families brought menorahs from home to light with members of the congregation.

Lipp took them through how to observe the lit candles on the menorah. Parents and grandparents crowded around the table and guided their children’s hands to the menorah. Some were lighting a candle for the first time.

“You’re not supposed to use the light, you’re supposed to enjoy the light,” he said. “You’re supposed to take in the light. It’s almost supposed to be a meditative kind of thing.”

A gold menorah with two blue candles that are lit
Divya Karthikeyan
A menorah at Adath Jeshurun synagogue on Dec. 7, 2023.

Middle school teacher Randi Skaggs stood still during the ritual, watching her flame, both unwavering.

“It can be a time, especially this year, when there’s a loss of hope, and a loss of happiness and joy,” she said, referring to the war that continues to rage in Gaza between Israel and Hamas.

“So to see the lights build, it’s kind of a reminder that we always have this ability to build joy in our lives and build community,” she said.

Skaggs said, when times are toughest, she’s found that the harder she leans into her Jewish faith, the more comfort she gets.

In the American Jewish tradition, Hanukkah is joyous. It’s about the freedom and pride in being able to practice Judaism openly. It’s also pretty kid-centric.

Twelve-year-old Shai Bornstein made a snowflake cutout at the kids' table at Adath Jeshurun. She said for her, Hanukkah is about fun and being around other Jewish kids.

“And presents, and the food,” she said. “Latkes all the way!”

She said she prefers sour cream over applesauce for her latkes.

At school, she’s learning about the Holocaust, and it’s been a lot.

“I’m reading a Holocaust book called Milkweed by [Jerry] Spinelli, and they’re living in ghettos. And even though they’re being horribly and they’re hungry, they still have to be happy and celebrate Hanukkah with their families,” she said.

On the fifth night, a vigil for Gaza

Hanukkah also marks the triumph of a people against their oppressors. Some Jewish Louisvillians chose to mark the holiday this week with a vigil for Gaza at The Chapel of St. Neri, an interfaith gathering remembering Palestinian lives.

More than 18,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israel since the early October attacks by Hamas, which killed 1,200 people and took 240 hostages.

The air in the church hung heavy and somber over dozens of attendees, as they heard Palestinian speakers recount their experiences of living and having family in Gaza.

A group of people holding candles. They stand on a stage adorned with a table holding a menorah and a music stand that carries a sign reading, "PERMANENT CEASEFIRE."
Divya Karthikeyan
The Louisville Coalition for a Ceasefire holds a vigil for peace in Gaza on the fifth night of Hanukkah, Dec. 11. 2023.

During a prayer, they bowed their heads. The vigil was punctuated with calls for a cease-fire and songs of peace from the Mourning Choir and Louisville singer Joan Shelley.

For these Jewish community members, Hanukkah this year is about having faith that the future can be better.

“We wouldn’t ignore the Holocaust if it’s happening during Hanukkah,” said one of the vigil’s organizer Russ Greenleaf, who’s Jewish.

“We wanted to take the Hanukkah celebration and turn it into a serious purpose of highlighting this tragedy and mobilizing people to call their congressman to ask them, to beg them to vote for a cease-fire…put a stop to this senseless killing,” he said.

After the speakers, attendees gorged on an assortment of Middle Eastern foods: matzo ball soup, baklava and saffron milk cakes.

Among them is Janan Sarwar, a Muslim American pharmacist who lives in Louisville. She said the vigil felt like a safe space. She felt a sense of belonging.

“The words that I recognized in the songs were ‘shalom,’ peace (in Hebrew), and etymologically, I’m thinking of ‘salaam,’ which means peace in Arabic. So what’s running through my body is the similarities, I’m seeing how much is paralleling,” she said.

Hanukkah can take on many meanings. For some, it’s a respite and a break from the weight of the world. And for others, it bears the weight of the present moment and decades past. But at its core, it’s a call for a re-dedication to peace and finding light in darkness.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Janan Sarwar is a Muslim American who lives in Louisville.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

News Race & EquityYouth Reporting
Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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