Category Archives: History

Menorahs In The Public Square: A History

There’s something prominently displayed at the Mississippi Governor’s mansion: a nativity scene. Seeing it recently took me by surprise.

Menorah on the NYU camps (the author's graduate alma mater) last year

Menorah on the New York University campus (the author’s graduate alma mater) last year.

When I asked my friends about this, they laughed and reminded me that I was not in New York anymore. My adopted home of Jackson, Mississippi is smack in the middle of the Bible Belt, and while Jews all across the country feel the December dilemma, it is especially strong in the South.

Hanukkah, historically considered a minor holiday, was embraced more broadly by Jews wanting to fit in with fellow Americans celebrating the holiday season. Menorahs became standard in homes, businesses, and eventually, the public square, particularly in towns with large Jewish populations. It led me to wonder how these public manifestations of Jewish identity came to be, and what that means in a predominately Christian place like Jackson.

Most people don’t realize that the menorah’s public face in America began in 1974. That’s when Lubativch leader Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson began pressing his local emissaries to erect menorahs in town squares where holiday displays were already present. Liberal Jewish organizations criticized the decision, but Schneerson defended the campaign.[1] Over the next few years, menorahs began springing up in cities and towns across America. The campaign was so successful that by 1979, the Carter administration arranged for a giant menorah to be built on the White House lawn. By 1982, President Ronald Reagan designated the White House menorah as the National Menorah.

Many Jews, loyal to the concept of a separation of church and state, took issue with menorahs being placed alongside Christian symbols in the public square because all religious symbols on government property represented an endorsement of religion and therefore a violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. For them, these public displays of Jewish religious symbols threatened the separation of church and state, a foundational principle that served to protect the religious freedom of the Jewish community. As such, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) fought against them which while the National Jewish Commission On Law And Public Affairs (COLPA), the litigation arm of Agudath Israel, and other Orthodox religious Jewish non-governmental organizations fought to keep them in the public square.

The battle came to a head in 1989 in County of Alleghany v. ACLU.[2] This case looked at the constitutionality of two holiday displays in downtown Pittsburgh. One was a nativity scene, standing in a very prominent position in the courthouse. The other display was an 18-foot tall Hanukkah menorah donated by a group of Lubavitcher Hasidim accompanied by a 45-foot tall Christmas tree, at the base of which was a sign stating “Salute to Liberty.”

In a splintered decision that included nine separate written opinions, the court determined that the display of a menorah next to a Christmas tree in a public square could be appropriate, holding that the menorah and the Christmas tree were secular symbols, thus making the display compatible with the First Amendment, while the display of the nativity scene inside the courthouse was deemed unconstitutional, because it was a religious symbol. However, for many Jews, the Menorah holds immense religious significance It’s a complicated ruling.

The allowance of menorahs in the public square does potentially open the door for other religious symbols on public grounds. Religious symbols like nativity scenes, particularly in the Bible Belt. By pushing for menorahs displayed in the public square, ultra-Orthodox Jews also paved the way for public displays of other religious groups’ items.

What holiday symbols do you think should be allowed in the public square during the month of December? Is it better to have all, or nothing? How does it make us feel to have some-but-not-all in many public squares?

Don’t feel badly if you are torn; the courts have been as well. Here’s a list of other court cases dealing with public menorah displays. Happy Hanukkah!

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[1] See Dianne Ashton, Hanukkah in America: A History (New York: NYU Press, 2013).

[2] County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573 (1989).

Posted on December 16, 2014

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How Thanksgiving Became The Holiday We (All) Now Celebrate

The author and her family, circa 1980.

The author and her family, circa 1980.

Thanksgiving is a special holiday for me, because I can celebrate it with my Christian family. For many Jews like myself, who have not only friends but also family of other faiths, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to come together. It is a holiday embodying values important both in Judaism and American culture.

However, this embrace of Thanksgiving by people of all faiths was not always the case.

Prior to Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 of the annual national holiday in November, Thanksgiving was a regional event. It supposedly was first observed in 1631 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with Pilgrims breaking bread with the local Native Americans who helped them with their successful harvest. However, this image of the supposed-first Thanksgiving has become fraught with controversy, since history makes clear that beyond the first joint “Thanksgiving,” mutual peace, dependence, and friendship did not characterize Native American/Pilgrim relations—but that’s another blog post.

With time, the holiday came to serve as symbol for national unity, but one that was still rooted in a primarily Protestant Christian understanding. The Continental Congress gave the First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1777, which stressed that observance would “please God through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance.” In 1844, South Carolina Governor Hammond called on Thanksgiving for the citizens of his state to join in worship, as “becomes all Christian nations…. to God their creator, and his Son Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the World.” In response, Jews in Charleston protested. They refused to observe Thanksgiving publicly in the synagogues, keeping the two buildings closed on the holiday and accused Hammond of violating the constitution of South Carolina. Hammond’s reply? “I have always thought it a settled matter that I lived in a Christian land.” Rather than continuing an intemperate debate, they resolved to publish all of the correspondence in the press, allowing “public opinion of the country” to decide the issue.

Image from Pinehurst, NC Interfaith Thanksgiving event, 2013

Image from Pinehurst, NC Interfaith Thanksgiving event, 2013

The official federal holiday was enacted during the Civil War when this nation was in the midst of a tumultuous struggle. The editor of Godey’s magazine, Sarah Josepha Hale, issued yearly editorials, beginning in 1846, encouraging the “Great American Festival” of Thanksgiving be widely adopted. She hoped that a unifying holiday would help avert the prospect of a civil war. Her appeal for a national day of thanksgiving was successful, and Lincoln put forth a national proclamation in November of 1863. Secretary of State Seward called on the nation to observe the day “with one heart and voice,” to bring about peace. The holiday stressed the act of a “family homecoming,” and helped ease the dislocations of wars, industrial and commercial revolutions, and social unrest.

It also helped Jews feel more included in the American experience.

Scholars like Beth Wenger in History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage argue that over time, Thanksgiving has proven to be an especially fortuitous holiday for Jews, who saw its similarity to Sukkot, pointing out that the Pilgrims were greatly influenced by Jewish teachings in the Bible. Almost since their first arrival in America, Jews sponsored celebrations of American holidays as a way of asserting both their allegiance to American civic ideals and the symbiosis of Jewish and American values. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jews even made a practice of celebrating Thanksgiving in synagogues while Christians were doing the same in churches. With time, it became popular to participate in interfaith ceremonies. Indeed, this trend continues across the country in places like Pinehurst, North Carolina and Sun Valley, Idaho.

Despite its complicated past, Thanksgiving can serve as a reminder that even in our troubled times, we can still give thanks. Practicing gratitude in one’s everyday life is as good for a person as exercise or healthy living. It keeps us centered, humble, and ultimately, empathetic. It is that empathy for others around us that defines us both as a Jewish community and country, and it can continue to help all of us, despite our differences, tackle difficulties in the future.

I will be grateful to gather for this ecumenical celebration with my own religiously diverse family. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

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Posted on November 26, 2014

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The Yiddish Author You Never Heard Of, And The Southern Jewish Man Who Will Introduce You To Him

Jacob Dinezon

Jacob Dinezon

One of my favorite things about my new role as a full-time historian at the ISJL is getting to meet great people with fascinating stories. The latest example? I recently had the privilege of speaking with Scott Davis, an Emmy award-winning Jewish television producer from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Scott Davis has told stories for a living for most of his life, and he became interested in the traditions of Jewish storytelling toward the end of his career. He began writing plays based on nineteenth century Yiddish culture. While doing research for a play based on the Jewish short stories of I. L. Peretz and Sholom Aleichem, two very famous classical nineteenth century Yiddish writers, Scott discovered another important literary figure, Jacob Dinezon.

It turns out Jacob Dinezon was a bestseller in his time (one of his very first novels sold more than 200,000 copies—a massive number in that era!), and he served as a mentor and benevolent uncle of sorts to several writers, but he never became as widely known as his contemporaries like Peretz and Aleichem. Why? Because his works were never translated into English.

Davis feels very passionately about sharing Dinezon’s amazing stories with the rest of the world. In 2007, he founded Jewish Storyteller Press to publish the work of Yiddish authors who deserve more recognition. Initially, he worked with existing English translations of old Yiddish tales. Davis himself doesn’t read Yiddish, so he hired professional scholars to translate directly from the original books. Davis also works with the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of books in the Yiddish language.

Scott Davis

Scott Davis

Davis just published the first English translation of Dinezon’s book, Memories and Scenes, a collection of 11 autobiographical short stories. In this collection, Dinezon recalls his childhood years in the shtetl and the events that led to his passion for becoming a writer. His simple tales provide a firsthand look into 19th-century shtetl life and a treasure trove of Yiddish history, culture and values. What Davis truly admires is the philosophy behind Dinezon’s tales. Hearing him talk about it so passionately, I can see why: Dinezon’s values reflected those of Davis’s father, a man Davis describes as generous and kind, always going out of his way to help other people.

One of the stories, entitled “Borekh,” tells the tale of a young orphan boy living in the yeshiva. Borekh was not very good at studying Talmud; but he was a generous soul, doing things for people and asking nothing in return. As he grew into manhood, he began to explore the question of who he would grow to be as an adult and what his contribution would be to his community. He asked God for help and soon realizes his special ability, woodworking. He make dreidels, Purim groggers, and toy animals for the children of the town. People in the town still looked down on him for not studying like his peers—until he ultimately carves a holy ark for the Torah, making his own significant and lasting contribution to his community.

Davis strongly identified with Borekh and his struggle to find his true calling. An avid clarinet player, he tried to learn to play Klezmer music. He knew he had an interest in promoting Jewish culture, whether in music or literature. After a few sessions, he realized that it wasn’t very good at it, but was he could do was he tell a good story. That love of storytelling has allowed Davis to engage so many individuals in history that could have easily been forgotten.

Like Davis, I see myself as a storyteller and feel fortunate that I get to tell the stories of Southern Jewry. Each of us offers a unique contribution in preserving Jewish heritage and ultimately, making a positive difference in our communities. Taking a cue from Scott Davis, we can all work together to make sure the story of our Jewish legacy continues.

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Posted on November 17, 2014

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