80 Years since Kristallnacht: Thoughts on Swastikas and Diwali

Today we commemorate Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” which is given its name for the shards of broken glass shattered in the streets of Nazi-Germany on November 9-10, 1938. On that evening, Nazis ransacked German synagogues, killing about 90 Jews. Kristallnacht is considered a turning point in the history of the Holocaust for this very reason. Tonight, I will light a yahrzeit candle before Shabbat in memory of these Jews and to mark this occasion. In our shul, a speaker will talk about his family’s experience during this time.

It’s been 80 years. Another whole lifetime. Have things changed?

Nearly two weeks ago, 11 Jews were murdered while praying in a Pittsburgh synagogue. As a rabbi of a synagogue myself, I can tell you that this has wreaked havoc on our world. How do we protect ourselves while still wanting our synagogue to be open enough to allow entry to those who wish to be there for the right reasons? How do we explain to our children why people are being wanded with a metal detector when they enter into a house of worship, a place which I have explained to them is literally a safe sanctuary?

Suffice it to say that anti-Semitism still exists. Some say it’s on the rise. Some say it’s always been here, but just getting more press. Who am I to make these claims? But as a rabbi, I am doing my best to encourage children and adults to continue being proud of their Jewish identity despite what is happening in the world around us. Continue to wear that Star of David necklace. Continue to voice your Jewish pride. Do not hide your Judaism, my friends.

And then, something like this happens: a kid in middle school is bullied for being a Jew, a swastika is found on a door to a Jew’s home, a gunman opens fire in a synagogue on Shabbat.

Just this morning I learned of a practice by my friends who are Indian: placing swastikas on the doors of their home on the holiday of Diwali, as a sign that all who enter should be blessed. I’ve tried to read up on this practice and admittedly, I do not know much and would love to learn more. I am grateful to be part of a community comprised of residents of all faiths, including people who celebrate Diwali. It was a victory in my town only in the last few years when the school district decided to close on this holiday. I celebrate that victory.

And yet, wow.

diwali swastika

I don’t even know where to start.

It’s clear that I was raised in a white, working-class (and Jewish) bubble. To me, a swastika was nothing but a sign of hate, nothing but a sign of anti-Semitism, nothing but disregard for the dignity of the soul of another person. To learn that it could serve as a sign to wish others well? The thought honestly blows my mind because of years of seeing it only as a sign of hate.

As it turns out, the symbol – this “swastika” – has been around for about 5,000 years and only in the last 80+ has it taken on a new – and hateful – meaning. I say to myself:

“I want to know more.”

In the Jewish tradition, there are rituals that we follow because they are obligatory upon us: holding a Passover seder, keeping kosher, lighting candles on Shabbat. These are called “mitzvot” – or commandments.  If these commandments are written in the Torah or are rabbinically-derived they are obligatory and we cannot change them without a formal process of re-examining that mitzvah. I teach my bar/bat mitzvah students that a mitzvah is not necessarily translated as a “good deed,” but rather a “commandment,” to demonstrate that sometimes we might not feel like doing them, but we are obligated to do them nonetheless.

And then, in the Jewish tradition, there are rituals which CAN be changed because they are not mandated, but are rather community customs, or minhagim. In the Jewish faith, some customs might be to eat legumes on Passover (or not eat legumes on Passover). When reciting a certain prayer, one community may stand and another might be seated. These are customs, depending on the scenario, that can be altered.

If I were a rabbi in an Indian community, this might be a dilemma I would face about the desire/need to change community custom – or not – around the display of a swastika on Diwali.

As a rabbi, I want every Jew to practice their Judaism freely, in a safe space. I would never want someone to tell me that I cannot practice my religion in the way that is commanded of me or in the way that it has become my custom. So too, I would never want to tell a person of another faith that they cannot practice their religion freely. I guess this means that I would never tell someone who celebrates Diwali to remove the swastika from their door.

And yet…and yet…and yet.

I am left with so many questions.

A part of me wants to add a caveat to my previous statement – that I wouldn’t want someone to tell me that I cannot practice my religion freely.  What I would add to that are the words “so long as I am practicing it without harming others.” I say that because I obviously do not support acts of terrorism which are done as a religious act in the name of some supposed God. I would not even call that a god. In the Jewish tradition, life supersedes everything else.

The question for me is where we draw the line regarding what is safe to other people.

It’s clear when the killing of innocent lives is done in the name of religion, there should be no place for this and justice should be met.  But where do we draw the line with hate crimes? If a swastika is placed on the entry of my door or on the front steps of my synagogue, it is a hate crime. But when that same swastika is placed on the door of a Hindu on Diwali, it represents only well wishes. Can those two scenarios mutually exist? I honestly can’t even get my head around it.

To my friends who celebrate Diwali, I want to know more. Please share with me your thoughts, your struggles. Is this something that is commanded of you – and must be practiced or is it merely a custom, which, given the current context of anti-Semitism and hate, might be altered or eliminated? Are you upset with me for even proposing that question? It’s really a genuine inquiry.

And to my Jewish friends – you may be upset with me for being so open to swastikas on the holiday of Diwali. Please don’t misunderstand me or quote me out of context, especially as I’m genuinely wrestling with all of us. I’m invoking the commandment to dan ‘cha zechut — give others the benefit of the doubt. It’s really a question about the boundaries of religious freedom.

At first glance at the above photo, I see hate. The red paint or chalk on the stairs seems like blood – and sends my mind off into a world of terror. But as I look closer, I see flowers and twinkling candles, leading me into the home.

I would be thrilled if an Indian friend were to invite me to a Diwali celebration in their home. And now knowing this, if I was greeted at the front door with a swastika, might it be up to me to change my internal dialogue to see that swastika as a sign of a (gulp) blessing?

Is it possible that the same emblem which greets me in one context with hate and fear, could, in another context, shower me with hope and love?


2 thoughts on “80 Years since Kristallnacht: Thoughts on Swastikas and Diwali

  1. Surely the Americans who celebrate Diwali cannot be unaware of the negative connotations of a swastika. I’m interested in this topic. I certainly do not take offense to Christmas trees or the lights of Diwali.


  2. Hindu swastika is drawn differently from german swastika. (Clockwise vs anti clockwise).
    It’s a faith that’s followed by 1/6th of world population. Swastika is not an optional symbol for hindus. It’s internal part of every ritual, not just Diwali. Not sure if this ritual can be changed.
    Hindus in India welcomed jewish friends with open arms and helped them to settle in India.


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