Illustration: Hanukkah Lights in the Dark by אליעד מלין - Own work [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikipedia; Diwali Diya Necklace by Ramnath Bhat - Flickr [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia
The Hindu and Jewish communities of Chicago will make interfaith history in a joint celebration of Diwali and Hanukkah at that city’s Festival of Lights on November 18. But this will not be the first time that a Hindu in Chicago has reached out to other faiths.
In 1893, a previously little-known Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda, made history with a groundbreaking speech to the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He introduced Hinduism to America 125 years ago, calling for religious tolerance and an end to fanaticism. Vivekananda is credited as being a key figure in the introduction of Vedanta and Yoga Indian philosophies to the western world.
In his speech he also mentioned the Jewish people, the historical bonds with the Hindus and the historic persecutions against the community. The organizers of the current event envision his historic speech as an inspiration for the event.
The event is a realization of the deep desire and global efforts of two ancient indigenous people and civilizations to unite on a people-to-people basis. While the relationship between Hindus and Jews can be traced back 2,600 years, the growing connection between these two people transcends modern governments and today’s politics. A recent visit by Tapan Ghosh and Devdutta Maji, President of SinghaBahini, brought a vision of a Jewish-Hindu alliance to Israel. A 70,000 strong pro-Israel February rally in India expressed support for moving India’s embassy to Jerusalem. The Chicago event is planned to continue efforts to unite two ancient faiths and people who hold similar values.
This year’s event is a fitting tribute to the spirit of Swami Vivekananda’s belief in the respect for and understanding of other religions. The organizers plan “a modern celebration uniting two ancient peoples who cherish common values. The respective festivals signify the emergence of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. It is also a celebration of 2600 years of glorious Hindu-Jewish ties.”
While the two festivals have different historical contexts, they have some aspects in common. Hanukkah dates from the second century BCE, when the Syrian-Greek occupiers of the Land of Israel forced the Jewish people to accept Greek culture and beliefs. Despite all odds, the Jews were able to defeat the mightiest army on earth, drive the Greeks from the Land, and rededicate the desecrated Second Temple, lighting the menorah with holy oil. The Hanukkah prayers thank G-d for delivering “the wicked into the hands of the righteous.”
The Hindu festival of Diwali occurs in autumn in the northern hemisphere (spring in the southern hemisphere). Diwali commemorates the day that King Rama’s army of good defeated King Ravana's army of evil, allowing him to return to his birthplace, Ayodhya, after a period in exile. The festival signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance. Both festivals have the essence of courage, love and tolerance.
Much has happened since Swami Vivekananda's famous speech in Chicago in 1893. A holocaust murdering six million Jews took place and despite all odds the Jewish people have returned to their ancient Nation of Israel and created an oasis in the middle east.
In the U.S., the Jewish and the Hindu community are both small minorities. Yet they excel in education, as professionals and in business; both are considered to be the most educated communities in America. Many in these communities attribute their success to the inculcation of common values such as a belief in education, tolerance and a strong family. Both faiths are ancient and share common elements — even including calling one of their beloved celebrations the Festival of Lights.
The November event was conceived by Peggy Shapiro, Midwest Executive Director of StandWithUs , Prasad Yalamanchi of Global Hindu Heritage Foundation and Dr. Souptik Mukherjee, who have all cooperated on successful interfaith events in the past. “Hindus and Jews are celebrating together, not only because their two festivals occur at the same time on the calendar, but also because they want to shed some light together on the value of not only tolerance for other religions but also understanding and respect.”
The event features comments by the consul generals of both India and Israel, the comedy of Indian-Jewish stand up comedian Samson “Mathatma Moses” Koletar, and lessons in Indian and Israeli dance allowing attendees to dance in each other's traditional steps as a symbol of brotherhood, mutual respect, empathy and harmony.
Sponsored by StandWithUs, Sewa International, Shir Hadash, International Center for Cultural Studies, Temple Beth El, Global Hindu Heritage Foundation, Pram Shakti Peeth of America Foundation, TV Asia, Viswa Hindu Parishad America and other individuals, the Festival of Lights is a celebration of two ancient cultures who are creating modern miracles; it will be held at Temple Beth El in Northbrook, IL, and registration can be found here.
The organizers are still accepting individual and organizational sponsorships for the event. If you would like to help sponsor the historic evening, please contact Peggy Shapiro here.