Hanukkah Is a Complicated Reminder of Queer Jewish Visibility

This holiday season I'm torn between my desire to be visible and my desire to be safe.

During December, nothing feels more visibly Jewish than the bright glow of Hanukkah candles in the window, a symbol of Jewish resilience and resistance against assimilation. Yet as a person who is fearful with the idea of being both visibly queer and Jewish in what seems to be an increasingly antisemitic and homophobic world, I find this holiday a complicated reminder of visibility.

In conversations with my grandmother, a woman who survived World War II and the antisemitism in Soviet Era Ukraine, I understand that antisemitism is a living, breathing thing for my family when she advises me not to wear my Star of David necklace openly on subway platforms in fear of being a target.

In terms of living with a Slavic immigrant community that has made no attempts to hide their disdain for the LGBTQ community, coming from a highly homophobic culture, I constantly tailor my speech around them in order to be able to live in relative peace among those I call family and friends.

Where can I be fully, unabashedly myself?

In the 1970s, gay Jewish activist Harvey Milk made an impassioned plea to his LGBTQ community, urging those who hadn’t already to “come out,” to disclose their queer identities to their loved ones:

Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out. Come out to your parents. I know that it is hard and will hurt them, but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives. Come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop. Come out only to the people you know, and who know you, not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths. Destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.

The power of coming out, Milk claimed, was to put a face to the ambiguous “homosexual menace” so many politicians and voting citizens were afraid of. To allow homophobes to recognize how the people within their own social circles, i.e. their doctors, their teachers, their children, were real living people whose lives were affected by the queerphobic policies they voted for.

I think of Queen Esther, for whom “coming out” as Jewish to her husband was a way of protecting her Jewish community — to let her husband, King Ahasuerus, know who exactly it was that Haman was targeting.

For Milk and Esther, visibility is power and activism. A stance against fading quietly into the background of a straight, non-Jewish mainstream. A way to honor one’s heritage and personal identities.

Yet, as Hanukkah approaches, one of the most visibly Jewish holidays in American culture, I am torn between my desire to be visible and my desire to be safe.

And I know I am not the only one.

How many of us would raise their hand if asked if we’ve ever hidden the symbols of our faith, tucking away our kippahs after temple or tucking our Magen David jewelry under our clothes, out of sight, out of mind? How many of us have hesitated when someone asks us if we are Jewish, not knowing if the one asking is friend or foe? Or the loving straight family members who ask us when we’re going to get a boyfriend/girlfriend, the curl of sadness in our stomachs knowing that if we say the truth, we would potentially disappoint them?

I consider Hanukkah to be a beautiful holiday, a warm spot during a cold year. It is a holiday marked in memories and favorite pop culture moments, from watching the “Rugrats” Hanukkah special as a kid to seeing animated shows today honor the holiday. It is a quiet moment when I sit with my grandmother and sister as we try to find the right prayer to read off our phones, bringing the lighter to the wax candle, honoring another year passed, along with delicious sufganiyot.

Yet just as my grandmother hesitates to put a mezuzah on the threshold of her front door, she hesitates to put a menorah in the front window, fearing the less than friendly attention it would draw to our home.

While there are no easy answers I can offer for this type of situation, I hope to those struggling with visibility in regards to their Jewishness and/or queerness know that it is OK. You can be fearful of being visible and still feel proud. We are trying to survive the best way we can in a hostile world, and can celebrate our identities in ways that feel safe and reassuring.

If you wish to avoid putting a menorah in your front window, then light one in the center of your home, just as you would cradle a child in your arms, tucking them away from the darkness.

Make anonymous donations to social justice organizations fighting against antisemitism and homophobia/transphobia, to encourage and provide support to those keeping up the good fight.

Performs random acts of kindness for others, as it is a mitzvah to be kind in a cruel world.

And perhaps, most importantly, be kind to yourself. Know that who you are is valid, and deserving of love, respect and safety. Know that even when you feel you have to tone down certain parts of yourself to feel safe, you are not hiding from yourself, only from others that would wish to do you harm.

Let’s hope that one day, we can all let our true lights shine brightly without fear.

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