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Blacks and the Festival of Light

Robert believes that our world's many cultures and traditions form a beautiful, breathtaking tapestry.

First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama appeared at a Hanukkah reception on December 08, 2011, in Washington, D.C.

First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama appeared at a Hanukkah reception on December 08, 2011, in Washington, D.C.

The Festival of Lights called Hanukkah celebrates the oil miracle of BCE 164. Israel's temple was destroyed in a war with Assyria. After the war, Israelite priests began rekindling the temple's eternal light. There was enough oil to light the eternal temple light for one day. The lamp lasted eight days. That miracle spawned the eight-day Hanukkah observance. Observers light an eight-branched candelabra called a menorah each night during the festival. Eight candles represent each day that the lamp remained illuminated.

Hanukkah

Beginning the 25th day of the Jewish calendar month of Kislev, Hanukkah celebrations last for eight nights and days. The festival may appear from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar. Families celebrate by lighting the candles of a menorah, or Hanukkah. The Hanukkah is a candelabrum that has nine branches. One candle, which rests above or below the others, is often used to light the other eight. This unique candle becomes the shamash ("attendant"). Each night, the shamash is used to light one more candle until eight candles are lit.

Starting on the 25th day of the Jewish calendar month of Kislev, Hanukkah celebrations last for eight nights and days.

Starting on the 25th day of the Jewish calendar month of Kislev, Hanukkah celebrations last for eight nights and days.

Hanukkah festivities include:

  • Hanukkah songs.
  • Playing the dreidel game (created as a way for Jews to learn Hebrew and study the Torah).
  • Eating oil-based foods like latkes (made with grated potato) and sufganiyot (round jelly doughnuts).
  • Eating blintzes (rolled fried or baked pancakes filled with cheese or fruit) and dairy foods.

A Minor Holiday

In the 1970s, many countries started public menorah lightings. The National Menorah, celebrating Hanukkah, has been lit on the White House grounds since 1979. Jimmy Carter, the 39th U.S. president, attended that first ceremony. Ronald Reagan, 40th U.S. president, designated it the National Menorah.

President Jimmy Carter lights a menorah in Lafayette Square across from the White House on Dec. 17, 1979. (Karl H. Schumacher, White House photograph/National Archives)

President Jimmy Carter lights a menorah in Lafayette Square across from the White House on Dec. 17, 1979. (Karl H. Schumacher, White House photograph/National Archives)

Jews in North America and elsewhere embraced Hanukkah. The holiday was not as strict as other Israelite festivals and often fell around the same time as Christmas.

Black American Jews

Black Ethiopian Jews lived in Ethiopia for over 2,000 years. In the early 1900s, 200,000 black American Jews lived in the United States. Many black American Jews converted to Judaism. Others were biracial with a Jewish parent.

Singer Diana Ross (left) and daughter Tracee Ellis Ross (right), a black Jewish American actress and model

Singer Diana Ross (left) and daughter Tracee Ellis Ross (right), a black Jewish American actress and model

Famous Blacks and Hanukkah

The United States has many Black Jewish luminaries who have celebrated Hanukkah.

Samuel George Davis Jr." Sammy Davis, Jr." (December 8, 1925–May 16, 1990) was an African American singer, dancer, actor, vaudevillian, and comedian. He lost his left eye in a 1954 car accident. Mr. Davis converted to Judaism many years after his accident.

Singer/actress Nell Carter (September 13, 1948–January 23, 2003) converted to Judaism in 1982 after marrying mathematician and lumber executive George Krynicki.

The list of Jewish African American entertainers is long and includes:

  • Borris Kodjoe (Model and TV actor)
  • Jussie Smollett (actor and musician)
  • Khleo Thomas (film actor)
  • Kidada Jones (film actress and model, daughter of record executive Quincy Jones and actress/model Peggy Lipton)
  • Rashida Jones (film actress and model, daughter of record executive Quincy Jones and actress/model Peggy Lipton)
  • Lauren London (model and actress)
  • Lisa Bonet (TV and movie star)
  • Maya Rudolph (comic actress, musician, daughter of singer Minnie Riperton)
  • Tiffany Haddish (actress, writer, and producer)
  • Tracee Ellis Ross (actress/model, daughter of singer Diana Ross)
  • Yaphet Kotto (actor and writer)
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Singer Minnie Riperton (left) and daughter Maya Rudolph (right), a black Jewish actress and model

Singer Minnie Riperton (left) and daughter Maya Rudolph (right), a black Jewish actress and model

Black Jewish Musicians and Hanukkah

The list of Jewish African American musicians is extensive and includes:

  • Andre Williams (rock and roll singer)
  • Aubrey "Drake" Graham "(Canadian and United States citizen, rapper, and actor)
  • Ben Harper (Grammy-winning rock, folk, and blues artist)
  • Nissim Black "D. Black"(rapper)
  • "Goapele" Mohlabane (singer and songwriter)
  • Jack Leroy Wilson Jr. "Jackie Wilson" (June 9, 1934 – January 21, 1984, pioneering hit songwriter and soul singer)
The pioneering hit songwriter and soul singer Jackie Wilson" was a Jewish convert.

The pioneering hit songwriter and soul singer Jackie Wilson" was a Jewish convert.

  • Joshua Redman (jazz saxophonist)
  • Justin Warfield (singer and songwriter)
  • Lenny Kravitz (grammy-winning rock star)
  • Saul Hudson "Slash" (guitarist for the rock band Guns N' Roses, British-American)
  • William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholf Smith aka Willie "The Lion" Smith (November 23, 1893 – April 18, 1973, legendary American jazz and stride pianist)
  • Yitz Jordan "Y-Love" (rapper and hip hop artist)
The list of black Jewish Musicians includes Saul Hudson "Slash," the British-American lead guitarist for Guns N' Roses.

The list of black Jewish Musicians includes Saul Hudson "Slash," the British-American lead guitarist for Guns N' Roses.

Not All Jews Are White

Many believe that all Jews are "white," but that is not the case. The Israelites (comprising Jews) began mixed. "An ethnically diverse crowd also went up with them..." (Exodus 12:38 The Holman Christian Standard Bible, HCSB). The Jewish population has included African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi, and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage. Many black people have celebrated Hanukkah.

Sources

Bar, S. (2008). Who were the "mixed multitude"? Retrieved from https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA187624540&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=01464094&p=AONE&sw=w&userGroupName=tel_oweb&isGeoAuthType=true Hebrew Studies(Vol. 49)

Breaking Matzo. (2021, May 19). What is the story of Hanukkah? Breaking Matzo. Retrieved January 7, 2022, from https://breakingmatzo.com/philosophy/what-is-the-story-of-hanukkah/

Comedy, A. D. (2015, December 5). Black people celebrate Hanukkah 'for the first time: All def comedy. YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/F-R0suzkIZY

Counting jews. Be'chol Lashon. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://globaljews.org/resources/research/counting-jews/

Kestenbaum, S. (2016, December 5). Why do the Kwanzaa kinara and the Hanukkah Menorah look alike? The Forward. Retrieved from https://forward.com/news/356188/the-secret-jewish-history-of-kwanzaa/

Kranish, M. (2020, December 10). Carter would make history lighting a Hanukkah menorah. But first, he needed a longer match. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/12/10/jimmy-carter-hanukkah-menorah-white-house/

Silberberg, C. S. (n.d.). When did Chanukah become an official Jewish holiday? Retrieved from https://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/623473/jewish/When-did-Chanukah-become-an-official-Jewish-holiday.htm

Staff, N. Y. P. L. (2020, November 25). Celebrating African American jews. The New York Public Library. Retrieved December 31, 2021, from https://www.nypl.org/blog/2016/02/11/celebrating-african-american-jews

Washington, R. (2005, December 26). Blacks, the Jewish faith, and Hanukkah. Blacks, the Jewish Faith, and Hanukkah. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5069907.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Robert Odell Jr

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