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Newtown, Hanukkah, Joseph and Barack

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
December 19, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo


First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

For our family and closest friends, this month has been the season of celebrating bar mitzvahs, the Jewish coming of age life cycle ceremony for 13-year old boys and girls, and of Hanukkah, the eight-day 'festival of lights.' Once a minor holiday, Hanukkah celebrates the martial bravery of Maccabean revolt against Antiochus IV, who wanted to ban Jewish practice in Jerusalem. 20th century American Jews, hoping to compete with Christmas, elevated Hanukkah and made it mostly a children's holiday focused on miracles more than warfare.

Last Friday, we gathered at our synagogue in Washington, DC with hundreds of families to sing, light menorahs and absorb the simple beauty of babies, children, parents and grandparents together. The news from Newtown had barely started to sink in. But by the next morning, again at the synagogue for a bar mitzvah and reading of the Torah, our celebration combined with mourning the lives of 20 children and six adults massacred by Adam Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut.

The next day, my son and I watched President Obama address the Newtown families and their community at a memorial service. The President seemed shattered with grief. He seemed to fight back tears as he read the name of each victim, just as we recite the names of deceased loved ones in a prayer for the dead even as we celebrate births, bar mitzvahs, and other life cycle events.

As a parent and as the president, Obama called for action, bitterly noting that his presidency had seen four mass killings—Ft. Hood, Texas; Tucson, Arizona; Aurora, Colorado; and now Newtown, Connecticut. But the reality is far worse. New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a staunch advocate of gun control, tweeted the next day that 34 Americans are killed each day by guns.

I want to think that the image of an angry, heartbroken, emotional Barack Obama will be seared in my son's memory for the rest of his life. But more than that, I want my son and all of our children to have a President that is prepared to challenge the mythological power of the National Rifle Association and lead the nation toward laws and policies that will, as he said, be worthy of our children and the memories of those lost last week, and every day.

Fortunately, albeit, tragically, the President will have support from his own party, from the public, and even from Republicans who recognize that protecting the constitution's second amendment must not override the public's wellbeing and security. Last week's bar mitzvah and Torah portion described how Joseph, whose own brothers had sold him into slavery, learned to exercise power wisely despite his ambivalence, anger and resentment. Obama too must overcome these traits and use his power, like the Maccabees, to act against the established order: he'll need warfare, the political sort. And, very likely, a miracle.

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