A Chanukah Reflection


This past fall was one of the most difficult in my career. I was caught in a terrible battle against anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism while preparing for my daughter’s becoming a Bat Mitzvah.

That struggle involved my driving 40 hours each week on I-95, one of the country’s most dangerous highways, from Providence to Philadelphia, teaching courses that met three times each week, and responding to a cabal of unscrupulous and thuggish administrators’ vituperations and constant misrepresentation of facts.

In the midst of this trying circumstance, I suffered the loss of my youngest brother, which took me to Jamaica under the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy. My return to the United States was also followed by that storm. Many people lost much. All of us had to continue.

I won’t get into the details of the struggle at Temple University except to say that one of my Jewish colleagues was a fierce warrior on my behalf, and a small set of others joined the fray with African American faculty, who were also under assault. As well, a trusted set of friends, which included a wonderful group of graduate students, brought compassion, helping hands, and even much needed humor to a terrible situation. Our persistent effort to bring truth to light has stimulated a set of initiatives that may well save the integrity and respect of Temple.

There were two things, in addition to my family, that enabled me to persevere through this ordeal. The first were the many letters I received from people whom my work inspired. Many of them were in destitute situations fighting against extraordinary odds and often-violent circumstances. Having worked with people who faced torture and death, and having done so on several occasions myself, the ressentiment of petty, racist and anti-Semitic administrators was brought into its proper perspective. The other thing was keeping focus on the reality of time. No matter what was thrown at me, December 5th, the end of the semester would come; on December 6th I would wake up to another world; and a day will come when I will no longer be under any contractual obligation to a group of administrators whose brutal effort to proletarianize the professoriate also has the consequence, when applied to black faculty, of nothing short of niggerization.

December 6th has now come to pass, and I have already awoken to a different world. On that day, I learned that an increased number of my colleagues have taken up action, with plans of creating preventive mechanisms, against those nefarious administrators, and a wonderful news story was published on my wife Jane and me becoming faculty members at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.

It then occurred to me that people who are in the wrong often fear nothing more than the future, and people who are in the right, or at least those taking a genuinely ethical stand, tend to look forward to it.

That Time has often been portrayed as a god is no accident. Its inevitability is a powerful force with which to reckon. No matter what we do, none of us can stop tomorrow.

Yet there was another dimension to all this that had escaped me until Jane and I began preparations for the Festival of Lights. There was something oddly poetic, metaphorical, and, in a word, “channeled” about the struggle at Temple finding its closure at the dawn of this holiday. Chanukah, after all, is the story of warriors, the Maccabees, of Judah responding to the defiling of the Temple in Jerusalem. Their struggle culminated not only in their victory but also their cleansing the Temple with fire for which there was a limited supply of oil that lasted beyond expectation.

As with the ancient story, the present one is similar in that action must be taken to reinstate the sanctity, the integrity, of Temple.

There is, however, an additional element. No one knew the flame would last eight days. It is a powerful metaphor about struggle, since it is always undertaken in the face of uncertainty. One must wage such a fight through faith and an abiding commitment to the ethical face of life-affirming practices.

It’s unfortunate that Chanukah has come to be regarded as “Jewish Christmas.” Its story is, after all, an inspirational one of struggle against what is unholy, unethical, and imperial. Ironically, it led to the tiny Hasmonean Empire round 140 BCE. This small span of juridical reach began the expansion of the laws of Judah and the transformation of people into Judeans and, eventually, Jews. Israelites, we should remember, included people who were once not Judeans. And as people converted into this community, especially vast numbers of Romans, they did so not as Israelites but as Jews.

This Jew today, an Afro-Jew, who fought (and continues to fight) against anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism, finds inspiration from recent ancestors who rose up on plantations in the Americas and fought against enslavement and the degradation of human dignity on one hand, and ancient ones who did the same, on the other. I have always argued there is no contradiction in being both Black and Jewish. This recent struggle leading to these reflections on this holiday has made concrete not only its truth but also its proverbial significance as a reminder of no respite for weary souls. The struggle, indeed, continues because there is no dignity in ignored or evaded responsibility.

© Lewis R. Gordon