By Rabbi Mark Melamut
What is Hanukkah all about? I’ve been thinking that its essence is about reclaiming and being proud of our Jewish identity. One way I see this is in the placement of the menorah or hanukkiah in our homes. On a street with lots of Christmas decorations, my kids have asked me, “‘Abba, where are all the Hanukkah decorations and lights?” This is always a great teaching moment for any parent or any of us who make the same observation.
Though many of us do decorate (I bought blue and white lights for the house that I’m still waiting to hang up), the menorah or hanukiyah and its light is meant to be the central, visual image adorning our homes. We are taught to put it in a place in our home that is visible to those who pass by in order to “publicize or share the miracle.” While for most of us it sits on the table or the counter bringing light into our homes, its prescribed traditional purpose is to advertise and spread the word about the miracle.
It is still a question in the window of my mind how simply seeing the menorah teaches others about a long ago miracle. Unless, of course, the Hanukkah story and its symbolism is already well known.
What seems more likely to me is that we and our neighbors see the beautifully lit candles and are reminded that the reflection we see is that of a proud Jewish household. Hanukkah is a time to reflect on who we are as a people, to be proud of our heritage and identity, and even to advertise it in the brightness of warmth and light from our homes!
Here is an amazing story I enjoy each year at this time of a community that banded together when the placing of a menorah in a family’s window resulted in a rock being thrown through it. Every time I imagine the 10,000 Billings, Montana residents who placed a menorah in their windows in solidarity with this family, I am warmed by the inspiration and glow of the Hanukkah spirit of freedom.
“In December 1993 Isaac Schnitzer, a six year old Jewish boy decorated his window with a colorful paper Hanukkah menorah. The next day a rock came flying through that window, leaving broken glass across Isaac’s room. Who could have done this, wondered Isaac? His parents comforted him: This is another hate crime. Isaac replied, you mean someone threw a rock at my window because I’m Jewish? The police assured the Schnitzers that they would do their best to protect them but perhaps they should remove their menorah from the window in order not to invite further vandalism. However Isaac’s mother refused to ‘lower her profile,’ to hide her Judaism. She told her son: we will keep up our Hanukkah decorations and we will not hide. Then she called the press and asked them: Please make this front page news because I want people to understand what it’s like to be Jewish.
The Schnitzers discovered that there had been many more hate crimes and that many in the community would be supportive of its minorities. When the African-American church was harassed, tens of people came to the church to show their support. The Reverend reported, ‘they rallied round and let them know, ‘Hey if you bite one, you bite us all,’ and that was a very good feeling we had.’ When a Native American’s home was sprayed with a swastika, thirty painters from the local union turned out to repaint it. One painter lamented, ‘we can paint the house over, but what can you do with those children’s memories? They’re scarred.’ The head of the local human rights organization said, ‘If they want me to be silent, then that’s just not going to happen.
When Isaac’s room hand been vandalized, his five year old non Jewish neighbor came over with a hand made Hanukkah decoration to put up in his room. When the activists met to decide how to respond, someone recalled the legend of the Danish King during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. The story goes that when the Nazis required every Danish Jew to wear a yellow star, the king chose to wear one as well. Christian and Jewish citizens would not be forcibly distinguished and their solidarity undermined. The Holocaust story reminded the people about the danger of silently giving in to violent prejudice. Soon the campaign began to put a menorah or picture of one in every window in Billings. That was a small act of courage but a big expression of brotherhood. The hate organizations threw bricks through more of the newly decorated Hanukkah windows such as the one in the Methodist church. Nevertheless 10,000 residents put up menorahs and the hate crimes decreased markedly, because ‘ordinary citizens put themselves on the front line against hate and intolerance.”
Hanukkah really did become a celebration of freedom because people expressed their convictions publicly in the window, even if it meant receiving a brick through the glass.
Hag Urim Sameach and Happy Hanukkah,