Fire in the Courtyard
The fifth night of Chanukah was Human Rights Day. And it was a night of #VigilantLove – an event at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles organized by a large coalition lead by Asians and Muslims. Originally intended as an intercultural event to commemorate the internment of Japanese-Americans and to affirm the dignity of the Syrian refugees, over several weeks the nature of the gathering changed. After San Bernardino, Vigilant Love also became a memorial for the 14 people murdered 60 miles away.
As the sun began to set into the fifth night of Chanukah we moved across the courtyard to witness the Muslims offering the Maghreb prayer. Although I had been praying side by side with Muslims in public regularly since May as part of my NewGround project Two Faiths One Prayer, this was the first time I felt in my kishkes that it was a dangerous act.[pullquote] Although I had been praying side by side with Muslims in public regularly since May as part of my NewGround project Two Faiths One Prayer, this was the first time I felt in my kishkes that it was a dangerous act.
[/pullquote] For a moment I took in the implications of what it meant for a Muslim to be “on the road” and have to pray — to put down a small prayer rug in an airport or in a medical building. Muslims pray, by design, in a position of great vulnerability – and in such heated times, their vulnerability is not only to God, but also to the whims of people around them. Tonight though, I felt the power in our numbers: there were many people from different faiths and cultures standing in the courtyard of the JACCC in witness to the Muslims on the ground in prayer, and the intent of the evening was for us to commit to one another that we would protect one another’s rights and one another’s bodies. We would be vigilant in our love for one another as citizens and as humans.
After the prayer we heard from leaders of different faith traditions, and then marched to other side of the complex – the site where in March of 1942, the Japanese-Americans of Southern California were rounded up and sent temporarily to Santa Anita Racetrack before being moved to Manzanar for the duration of the war. There we heard from community leaders. They offered many prayers, speeches and stories as the evening went on. (You can visit #VigilantLove to read some of them.)
Did I mention this was the week that Trump had Trumped even himself —calling for a ban on entry to all Muslims? Standing at the site of the evacuation of the Japanese, this event took on an even sharper tone than I’m sure the organizers (or perhaps any of us) had originally imagined it might.[pullquote align=left] Standing at the site of the evacuation of the Japanese, this event took on an even sharper tone than I’m sure the organizers (or perhaps any of us) had originally imagined it might.
[/pullquote] My Muslim friends had already been debating whether to keep their children home from school. From this account there seems good reason to be making this calculation. Another friend, a hijabi (regular wearer of a head scarf) went to the Post Office to send a package home to family. “Boom!” the postal worker said in “jest” as she put the package down on the counter. Another friend’s college roommate had been told that it was “disrespectful” and “insensitive” to wear her Muslim Student Association sweatshirt in the days after the Paris attacks. There was an armed protest outside a mosque in Irving, Texas.
And almost all of this happened before San Bernardino —and before Trump threw gasoline on a fire whose flames were already growing.
I will share just one of the many speeches: one of the organizers of the evening, a young hijabi, talked about coming home after a long day at work on the night of the San Bernardino shootings. She sat in her car realizing she did not feel safe exiting her car with her hijab. She considered taking it off and just putting on a hoodie, but in the end, took a deep breath and walked as she was. She prepares herself similarly every time she moves from private to public space now. But she and a number of the other speakers from the Muslim community shared that the messages of hate have been more than offset by messages of love and support coming from outside of the Muslim community. This night was one of them.
As the evening came to a close, we lit a ceremonial Chanukiah at the threshold of the plaza. I watched and thought about the increasing light from the candles. As we have been adding lights to our Chanukiyot this year, the fires of xenophobia have also been rising. During the daytime of the fifth candle, a mosque 75 miles from San Bernardino was firebombed. In Florida, hijabi women have been followed, and one was shot at on her way out of a mosque. There are legal discussions (familiar to Jews in many places and times) about whether women should or should not take off their hijabs for their personal safety. But as the light of the Chanukiah has increased, the cry against xenophobia and demagoguery has also gained strength – in the grassroots, on social media and on the international stage.
On the fifth night of Chanukah, my partner and I came back home to our own courtyard to light with our son. Our family has taken to lighting our Chanukiyot in the small courtyard at the front of our house as our interpretation of “pirsumei nisa” (publicizing the miracle). As the light grew, and the sounds of the blessings wafted up Shenandoah Street, I felt the privilege of being able to let this statement of faith and culture make its way out of the courtyard in Los Angeles and into the public sphere. I thought about so many of my Muslim friends who were also standing proudly in the public space – with patience, compassion and determination – even through fear. And it reaffirmed for me the need for us to stand together against the hate which is all too real and coming from many directions. I will contintue to sing Ma’oz Tsur into the night and stand with my friends as they recite “Allahu Akbar” and “Asalam Aleikum” in a courtyard at the JACCC (in Griffith Park or at Venice beach). And together we make a thriving pluralistic civic life here in Los Angeles.
As we stand in front of our blazing Chanukiyot this last night of Chanukah, let us recognize in them the growing fire of radicalism of all kinds. Let us be aware that there are real fears – both from radical Islam and from the xenophobic responses Trump has emboldened in the courtyards of America. But let us also feel the light created when we come together to “repel evil with something better” (Quran 41:34). Let us be vigilant in learning about one another and learning to love one another, for in the words of the Chanukah song, “In our hands are light and fire. Each holds a small light but all together the light is strong.” It’s in our hands now, let’s burn bright.