Jewish Journal

Finding LGBT pride in Chanukah

by Ryan Torok

Posted on Nov. 26, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Fifteen years ago, Stephen Sass and his husband, Steven Hochstadt, consecrated their commitment to each other during a religious marriage ceremony that took place during Chanukah. The timing was intentional.

“Chanukah has always resonated deeply for me as a Jew and as a gay man, since it commemorates one of the earliest fights for freedom of conscience, and celebrates the right to be different and to express one’s individual and communal identity as a member of a minority group within larger society,” Sass said.

The holiday of Chanukah celebrates the Maccabees’ military victory over the Seleucid rulers of Judea during the second century B.C.E. It also commemorates the miracle that occurred when the Jews rededicated their Temple, and a vessel of consecrated oil — enough for only one day — somehow lasted eight.

Perhaps less known are the ways that the holiday — with its themes of pride, identity and fighting for your right to be who you are — has connected with the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community. On Nov. 18 and 19, the New York-based transdenominational Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute held classes locally that, among other things, highlighted the connections between Chanukah and the LGBT story.

For Rabbi Karen Bender, an openly gay rabbi of San Fernando Valley congregation Temple Judea, who led a class there, displaying the chanukiyah in the window during the holiday — a tradition of the festival — is not that different from flying the rainbow gay-pride flag.

“That’s Chanukah,” she said. “This is a Jewish thing to do — to learn from the Maccabees, to demand the right to be who you are, and to be proud of who you are,” she said.

Rabbi Heather Miller, rabbinic fellow at LGBT-founded congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim in Pico-Robertson, led a similar session for her congregation. She said the flying of the flag, like the placement of the chanukiyah, demonstrates “our minority identity amidst a majority cultural world.”

Miller noted several ways in which the holiday speaks to the gay community. During several periods in history, Jews playing dreidel would pretend it was a secular gambling game so as to conceal that it was a game to teach about the holiday. This echoes the history of the LGBT movement, whose members often had to keep their orientation a secret.

And, there’s the haftarah read during Chanukah (Zechariah 4:6), in which the prophet relays the words of God, “not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit.” These words, which were popularized in song by legendary Jewish songwriter and member of the LGBT community Debbie Friedman, are “apropos to the current struggle for LGBT rights,” Sass said.

All these connections aside, do the LGBT-friendly ideas gleaned from Chanukah resonate with everyone in that population? Ultimately, it depends what generation you’re from.

Janelle Eagle, 30, a board member of JQ International, an organization offering Jewish LGBT programming and outreach that is hosting an LGBT Chanukah party in West Hollywood on Dec. 3, said, “The younger the generation, the less that that is an appealing parallel.” 

A contributor to the Journal’s “Oy Gay” blog, Eagle continued that she has never felt oppressed by an unwelcoming society, the now-defunct Proposition 8 (California’s gay marriage ban) and the Defense of Marriage Act notwithstanding.

But for older LGBT community members, linking the struggle of the Maccabees with their own past battles makes sense, said 50-year-old Andy Weisser, a consultant who attended the class at Temple Judea with his husband, Tim, and their adopted daughter. 

“The Maccabees sought to maintain their Judaism, and, similarly, LGBT people, we continued to gain equality without masking our identity,” said Weisser, who came out in 1983, when mainstream attitudes toward homosexuality were less accepting.

One chief difference between flying the pride flag and the displaying of the chanukiyah is that people who aren’t gay embrace the flag in order to express solidarity with the gay community, which doesn’t happen with the chanukiyah, Eagle said. 

Maybe not yet. But imagine a world where even non-Jews light menorahs in their windows during the holiday. Now that would be a miracle. 

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