LOS ANGELES, December 13, 2017: Hanukkah and Christmas are both magical times of the year. Jews and Christians alike celebrate their festivals of lights – either a Menorah or a Christmas tree. They are both beautiful and bright.
One holiday season remains in my heart.
Memories of Hanukkah 2013
Every year in Los Angeles, Chabad holds a large Menorah lighting at Citywalk at Universal Studios. In 2013 approximately 2,000 people attended the ceremony and heard meaningful remarks about Jewish pride from people as diverse as Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Cunin and radio personality Ben Shapiro.
The message of Jewish survival was emphasized and celebrated. Hanukkah is a holiday celebrating a military victory, and no attempt to drive the Jews into the sea will ever succeed as long as the Jewish people remain strong.
Yet one day before these remarks to cheering throngs, a much quieter Menorah lighting was taking place. Chabad of Burbank had a crowd of maybe 100 people. What took place on this night of Hanukkah should occur at the bigger lightings and at every religious ceremony in America.
Three Wise Men
Three men approached me in a friendly manner and asked what the ceremony was about. The explanation of Hanukkah was offered, and they were fascinated by it. After inquiring what religion they belonged to, they stated that they were Muslims from Iraq. They fled Iraq and had been living in America for about 17 years.
Anmar, Omar and Yasir were all incredibly nice people. They were Muslims inquiring about a Jewish ritual for no other reason than to pursue knowledge. Nobody would have objected if they had continued walking on their way after receiving the explanation of what the rest of us were doing. They made the decision to stay for the entire ceremony.
While this was going on, three black women in Christmas outfits were also observing the Menorah lighting. The Christmas tree was nearby, but they too were watching the Jewish ceremony taking place.
In a world where war and strife seem to be everywhere, Los Angeles showed on this one night what real peace looks like.
Most conflicts exist because people refuse to understand or accept one another.
On this night, there were no fists, only hands of friendship.
At Hanukkah and beyond: There is more that binds us than separates us
By getting to know Anmar, Omar, and Yasir, it became clear that the cliche is true. In some ways, we really are all the same. These men grew up watching J.R. Ewing on “Dallas” and thought it was a shame that the world lost actor Larry Hagman earlier this year. None of us liked Saddam Hussein, but a more amusing commonality took place regarding his deputy. We all agreed that Tariq Aziz really does resemble Inspector Clouseau.
All three of my new Iraqi friends liked Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies.
The candles lit, it was time to share Jewish songs. Sheets of music with both Hebrew and English writing. The young Jewish children were preparing to sing, but they were about to have company. These three men were accompanied by two very young Muslim girls. The girls were shy about joining in because they did not speak Hebrew.
With prodding from their father and me, they were encouraged to be a part of children singing together. They were immediately accepted. Young children have to be taught to hate, and these Jewish and Muslim children were taught to love and befriend each other.
Hanukkah Latkes and listening
After the songs, it was time to eat doughnuts and (potato pancakes) latkes. Again, people of all faiths in the area were welcome to enjoy.
In talking further with these three men, another commonality came in the form of internal conflicts. The American media loves stories of different religions and cultures fighting each other to the death. Yet seeing people of all faiths bond together in harmony was apparently too boring for the media to cover.
Most conflicts are internal. Many Jews have sharp disagreements with other Jews for being either “too Jewish” or “not Jewish enough.” The joke about “two Jews in a room and three opinions” apparently exists in other religions. Anmar, Omar, and Yasir took pride in the fact that all three of them could be friends even though two of them were Sunni Muslims and one was a Shiite.
Had the evening ended at that point, it would have been, as the Jews say on Passover, (sufficient) dayenu. Yet these three Iraqi Muslim men had one more request. They wanted to commemorate their experience with the rest of us. A picture with the three of them, me, and the Chabad Rabbi in front of the Menorah is a major source of pride for all five of us.
Shalom – Peace at Hanukka and Beyond
The Hebrew word “shalom” has three meanings. It means “hello” and “goodbye” and it also means “peace.” As three black Christian women walk toward the Christmas tree, three Iraqi Muslim men head for a fun night at Citywalk. A scattering of children, some Jewish people contemplate one thought.
What if peace is possible? What if the children singing Hanukkah songs, standing together with candles in the background could be the norm and not the exception? What if the way everybody acted that night was the expected pattern of behavior?
Maybe this occurrence is unique to the United States. While America is an exceptional nation, we are also a beacon to the rest of the world.
If one person somewhere on this Earth sees a video of what happened at Citywalk and decides to love their neighbor of another culture, then the world became a better place.