There’s something prominently displayed at the Mississippi Governor’s mansion: a nativity scene. Seeing it recently took me by surprise.
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. 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. 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!
 See Dianne Ashton, Hanukkah in America: A History (New York: NYU Press, 2013).
About this time last year, I remember walking around the streets of Jerusalem, counting the menorahs I could see in windowsills and doorways. I was excited and inspired—I had never seen such a prevalent, and beautiful, public display of Jewish ritual before.
On Hanukkah, we are told to light the menorah and place it at the entrance to our homes, a place easily visible to those passing by in the street. Over the years, the tradition has changed and many place the menorah in the window, facing the street. The rabbis say that one should choose the window most visible from the street, whether that window is in a bedroom or a family room. If many people pass by the entrance to an apartment (say, in the stairwell), the proper place for the menorah is just outside the entrance to the apartment. All this is to say that the menorah should be positioned in the place where it will be seen by most people, in order to publicize the holiday.
This year, I’m going to place the menorah in my front windowsill of my apartment in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m going to do so without a second thought. I have the privilege of placing a menorah in my windowsill without the fear of persecution in response to this public display of observance. What’s more, I do so with great pride and ownership of the ritual.
This year, next to my menorah, I’m going to place a banner that signifies the meaning of Hanukkah to me, a holiday that’s meant to bring light into our world. As a Jew devoted to social justice, to me that light represents equal rights for all. That light represents my belief that all people, regardless of religion or race or gender, should be able to walk down the street without fear of persecution or violence. Everyone should feel privileged enough to place the equivalent of their menorah in the windowsill.
Over the past weeks, as crowds have gathered across the country to demand an end to police brutality and racial violence, I’ve often wondered what I can do as a Jew and an ally to support this work. So this year, I’m adding a simple object to my windowsill—a sign that reads “Black Lives Matter.” There are similar Hanukkah campaigns and initiatives being encouraged by many national Jewish organizations, such as Bend The Arc and Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.
Hanukkah means “dedication.” This year, I am re-dedicating my Hanukkah. I hope you will join me.
“December Dilemma” is the perfect way to describe the mixture of emotions I feel during the holiday season.
I like twinkle lights, but I don’t like how stores start playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving. I love old Claymation Christmas cartoons, Christmas cookies, and Christmas carols. Red and green are great colors that go well together, but I prefer blue and silver. I like shopping for presents, but I hate how busy the mall gets.
I am similarly conflicted about Santa Claus. After years in public school of having to write him letters, and receiving nothing for my efforts, we have a complicated past.
So in the spirit of Sam’s recent delightful letter to Santa, here is mine.
Season’s Greetings. I am sorry that haven’t written since grade school, when my teacher made me write to you. I do not remember what I said in that letter, but it was probably grumpy and insincere. You see, I was the only Jewish kid in my school and I was so tired of having to write you a letter every year. It just seemed fruitless. You bring presents to children around the world, but only those who celebrate Christmas. I understand, I don’t celebrate Christmas and you deliver Christmas presents. It’s like why I don’t get presents on my sister’s birthday.
Even though I knew you would not leave me presents, I still insisted that we leave you your favorite snack, Christmas cookies. I think my Dad knew that you still wouldn’t come, because in Kindergarten I caught him eating your cookies. Bet that never happened to any Christmas-celebrating child…
And now, Santa, I would like to take this time to formally apologize for what I think is probably the biggest rift in our friendship: I am so sorry that I told my Kindergarten class that you were not real.
I don’t remember doing it, but my parents said that they got the call telling them about the horrible lies I was spreading throughout the preschool. I am sincerely sorry, I was just a sad and bitter little Kindergartener. I am sorry for denying your existence. (If it is any consolation, I do not think that the other kids believed me). I regret my actions and any pain, trauma, and trust issues I may have caused those poor children. I hope they didn’t spend too much time in therapy because of this incident.
In the spirit of friendship I would like to invite you to celebrate another holiday together. No it’s not Hanukkah or Kwanza, Festivus or Saturnalia, it’s my birthday. In an odd twist of fate, my birthday is on December 26th. (I must admit, this less than ideal birth date may have added to my dislike of Christmas) But this year, I will keep my chimney chute open and leave out some cookies. We can chat and discuss our differences. It will go down in history as the Great Birthday Mediation of 2014. We can lay a solid foundation for further Jewish-Santa relations in the future, and maybe figure out a way to stop clogging your mail box full of letters from Jewish kids whose teachers make them write to you….just a suggestion.
P.S. I would really love a stand mixer this year.