Chanukkah has always had a special gay resonance for me, as a gay Jew and rabbi. It’s about lighting candles, to celebrate the ancient Jews winning their freedom from an oppressive empire that attempted to enforce religious and cultural uniformity. We start with one candle (plus a “servant” candle that lights the others) on the first night, and add one every night until there are eight (plus the “servant” candle). This happens at the darkest time of year, when the nights are at their longest and the moon is at its darkest.
For me, this is a bit like the process of coming out. Many of us have started off as teenagers feeling alone, lost in the darkness of the closet, the only one who is shockingly different in our sexuality. The challenge is to light our own little candle, shine out a bit in the darkness, dare to be seen as different. Then another light joins us, and another, and another, and soon there’s a blaze of light and it’s OK to be different from the majority.
Sometimes there’s a “servant” candle who’s helped us to light up, a gay role model or just someone who’s been there before. For me, it was David, an older fellow chorister in the synagogue choir where I sang, in Sydney, and the first other person I knew was gay.
Maybe it’s a bit easier today than it was years ago, with same-sex marriage a reality at last, and so many LGBT role models even in the world of sport. But I suspect lots of young people still feel alone, isolated, different from their peers and bullied for it. And of course there are many countries where being LGBT is still forbidden on pain of arrest, violence and even death. The Chanukkah message is still relevant: take courage and shine out proudly as who you are, and you’ll inspire others to join you and shine together against oppressive conformity. And let us, who enjoy freedom, be “servant” candles helping to light up other lives.