After a hard year, Salt Lake’s Jewish community hopes to forge new holiday traditions
On a cold December night, a dense crowd packed into the City and County Building in Salt Lake.
“Clearly, we should have picked a much larger venue for our first Hanukkah lighting of the menorah here at city hall,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.
Blue bags filled with gelt and dreidels sat piled on one table for children, and hot drinks and donuts adorned another.
Between remarks by the local leaders and the lighting of the menorah, Cantor Sharon Brown-Levy strummed her guitar to Sevinon, Sov Sov Sov, a song about a spinning dreidel, and the mass of people joined in.
Mayor Mendenhall said she hoped this would be the first of an annual Hanukkah tradition for the city. It was one of several events marking the Jewish holiday around the state, from the state capitol to Vivint Arena.
Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish victory against assimilation into the Syrian Greek empire, which led to the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and a miracle of a little bit of oil lasting for eight days.
Steve Siporin is a professor emeritus of folklore at Utah State University and grew up Jewish in Omaha. When he was a kid, he said it was hard to feel like he wasn’t part of something during the Christmas season.
“And now, as an adult, I understand. Because in some ways, the message of Hanukkah is it's OK to be different. That sounds kind of trite, but it's also your right to have your own traditions,” he said. “It's about resistance to being like everyone else in moral and ethical ways, as well as celebratory ways.”
Hanukkah is not a major Biblical Jewish holiday, and Siporin said for a long time celebrations were small. Its proximity to Christmas helped elevate its status.
“It's exciting to me to think that Hanukkah was a fairly minor holiday for a long, long time. And today it's so, so bright in both Israel and the United States and all over, wherever there are Jews,” said Siporin.
It’s often compared to Christmas because of that proximity, though Siporin said being different is central to the whole idea of Hanukkah.
“I think the message of Hanukkah is if you assimilate, then you gradually lose your distinctiveness, and the distinctive things that you contribute to the world,” he said.
But being distinct wasn’t always seen as a good thing.
Rabbi Avremi Zippel, who runs Chabad Lubavitch of Utah in Salt Lake City, said when his parents started the Chabad in the 90s, members of the congregation were wary of public menorah lightings.
Now, Zippel runs Jewish Heritage Night in collaboration with the Utah Jazz. Even when they started the event a few years ago, he said some of that hesitation about being public remained.
“It was always funny to me to talk to people in the community. [I’d ask] ‘Hey, you coming to the game?’ ‘You know, Rabbi, I don't know about lighting the menorah in front of so many people. Is that a good idea?’ And then you go to the game and you do it and you hear the crowd roar and you know it. And you sense that people really respect a community that stands up for itself,” said Zippel.
Antisemitism is on the rise, and hate crimes in Utah have increased, as well. Earlier this year, the founder of Utah tech firm Entrata Dave Bateman stepped down after antisemitic comments and conspiracy theories of his became public.
For Zippel, celebrating Hanukkah in 2022 amid continued antisemitism is a testament to the Jewish people’s resilience.
“The same way that the Jewish people made it through Syrian Greek oppression 2,000 years ago and Nazi Germany 90 years ago, and the list goes on and on. We will endure,” said Zippel. “And the candles on our menorah will never go out.”