Wednesday, December 20, 2017
The Festival of Lights. We have reached that moment in the Jewish calendar called Chanukah. Chanukah, although a minor Jewish holiday, is a profoundly important holiday for me and my family.
Chanukah was forbidden in the Soviet Union. Judaism was a faith under constant surveillance, and Jews were harassed by the KGB and the Communist Party. Circumcision was outlawed. Kashrut was unheard of. Judaism was seen as a counterrevolutionary force by the workers’ party.
After enduring decades of anti-Semitism, both my wife’s family and my own of our families migrated to the United States in search of religious freedom. My family came earlier, in the aftermath of the war, and hers came more recently in the 1970s. Last year, my wife and I traveled to Moscow, Russia, for Chanukah
For me, returning to the country that had tormented our ancestors was a vindication. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Judaism is now a faith that can be observed by Jews, free of harassment by the Communist Party. I wanted to see for myself the country our families had called home.
We arrived in Moscow the first night of Chanukah. It was cold and snowing. I contacted the local Chabad center and requested information on the menorah lighting ceremony in Moscow. They put me in touch with a local rabbi who told me to arrive at Red Square next to the statue of Karl Marx in the evening. The short conversation did not prepare me for what I would see later that evening.
Red Square was decorated in a way that could only be described as a holiday winter wonderland. There was an ice skating rink right on Red Square. Small street vendors sold Eivreski Matrioshki (Jewish themed Russian dolls).
But that all paled in comparison to the site where the menorah stood. Next to Karl Marx’s statue stood a gigantic menorah, holiday lights, and ice sculptures that were like something out of a dream.
I walked up to the menorah, and a group of Russian Jews did not even bother to begin the conversation in Russian with me, instead reverting to Hebrew. They could see I was Jewish.
The chief rabbi of Russia lit the menorah after about an hour and gave a speech in Russian. Although my Russian is basic, I was able to understand him. He stated that this was the 25th year of the ceremony, marked by the fall of communism.
Once he lit the menorah, klezmer musicians began playing music and the group danced to traditional Jewish folk music for several hours. I actually met the chief rabbi of Russia and appeared in several Russian language newspapers.
Although every day that followed in Russia was equally beautiful, the experience of actually dancing around and celebrating my Jewish identity freely in public was immensely liberating for me. Bottled up inside me were the stories my wife and I had been told about life in the Soviet Union and about Jewish repression. To let those emotions free and dance on Red Square to Jewish folk music was immensely empowering.
Which brings me here to Paducah. Being here today as your rabbi is an act of celebration akin to my experience in Moscow. Today we are commending a momentous occasion in Jewish history that happened right here in Paducah.
On the eve of Chanukah in 1862, a snowstorm raged, and this community was celebrating Chanukah at their community center. Families were together. Children, mothers, fathers, grandfathers, and grandmothers had come together in the joy of the holiday spirit, just as we are sitting here today. Then a young union soldier walked up to the door, began banging on it, demanding, “Jews out!” These words echo through time, through many tongues, “Juden Rouse,” “Jews out!” General Order No 11, signed by Ulysses S. Grant, called for the liquidation of this town’s Jews on the eve of Chanukah 1862. Today marks 155 years since the Jews of this town were unwillingly and devastatingly kicked out of their homes, community centers, synagogue, businesses, and schools.
The entire community was effected—everyone. In a short period of time, this town was Jew free, Judenhine. All but two infirmed and dying old women were unlovingly kicked out of this town.
A rumor had spread across the North and South that Jews were untrustworthy and were engaged under-the-counter business dealings with the South in the cotton industry. The reality is that more than 200 industrial cotton suppliers worked with the South to meet the demand for uniforms and supplies. Only a hand full were Jewish owned. However, the North portrayed the Jews at that time as blood-sucking traitors. Harper’s Weekly published scathing attacks on the Jews during the Civil War.
One news article published a fabricated report that three Jews had been caught smuggling medicine into New Orleans during its siege. A few local newspapers called for the annihilation of the entire Jewish community.
Cesar Kaskel of the Jewish community of Paducah sent Abraham Lincoln a telegram detailing the atrocity that had befallen the Jews of this town. He described it as a violation of the Constitution, human rights, and dignity. Kaskel was granted an audience with President Lincoln, who agreed to come to the defense of the Jews of the South.
Days later, Lincoln issued a telegraph to Grant requesting him to revoke the order. The order was revoked, and the Jews of Paducah returned.
Today, as I, along with the members of this community, light the menorah, I am reliving those moments of overwhelming emotions, including pride and empowerment. I feel as though I am back in Moscow today. I am at ground zero, where the pendulum of history has swung against us, and we were fortunately able to turn the tides away from the gradual expulsion of Jews in the South. Today we are free to light the menorah at our synagogue, something this community were deprived of 155 years ago. Our tormentors are long gone. This moment is a vindication of our people’s endurance and our persistence in Paducah and everywhere. We Jews will always be here.
Today as we light the menorah we are marking a special moment of history. Not since 1862, the year this town’s Jews were exiled, have the candles of the menorah gone unlit during Chanukah by this community. May the candles of the menorah be lit for at least another 155 years to come. And let nobody ever tell the Jews of Paducah that this is not our home.