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.
Today’s post is from guest writer Joanna Brichetto, Experiential Educator at Nashville’s West End Synagogue, who also runs the website Bible Belt Balabusta. Her Hanukkah program was so cool, so we were THRILLED she wanted to share this post and her amazing pictures here on our blog!
For too many years, miles and multicolored wax candles separate kids from the “miracle of the oil.” Until now.
This year, students at West End Synagogue Religious School in Nashville, got to make olive oil—shemen zayit—like Maccabees: with a life-size, working replica of a Hellenistic-era olive crushing installation, featuring a crushing wheel, pivot pole, and basin. Kids pushed the pole to rotate the “limestone” wheel over fresh olives, and scooped the mash into sacks for pressing. Meanwhile, costumed interpreters showed posters of the five-step oil production process from tree to Temple Menorah.
Underwhelming it was not!
I dreamed of bringing an olive crusher to our school for years, and looked for synagogues doing something similar, but aside from a handful of churches that host all-out Walk Through Bethlehem events, I found nothing. Chabad has an excellent franchised oil workshop, but it uses modern tools like an electric centrifuge, and I was after an experience as historically authentic as possible. I had to have a big wheel. A friend helped me track down plans for a crusher, and once I showed them to Sharon Paz, our Director of Lifelong Learning, she commissioned a congregant to build it for the school. Our 2nd century BCE replica looks remarkably like stone, and to see it is to want to work it. It is simply irresistible, which is an ideal descriptor for any lesson plan.
The crushing installation was the centerpiece of our Hanukkah “Oil Crush” program, around which rotated complementary oil-themed activities created by Sharon and myself. Students and families practiced brachot and how to light a chanukiyah; made oil-based treats for our homeless program; judged a kosher chanukiyah contest; made and ate latkes; decorated chanukiyot to take home; bobbed for sufganiyot; and nibbled at an olive oil-tasting bar. Even our tzedakah project was oil-based: we collected funds to help local seniors with heating bills.
Honestly, we didn’t end up with enough oil for a single “cruse,” much less enough to fill the Temple Menorah, but this very fact gave students a sense that it was no easy feat for Maccabees to make the massive amount of oil—of any quality—needed in a short time. Our program was more “exploration” than”“demonstration,” and we’ll certainly expand it next time. Meanwhile, a room full of families, volunteers, staff and teachers got a greasy, hands-on reference point to Hanukkah oil that no one is likely to forget.
P.S. Our Oil Crush program was funded by the West End Synagogue Religious School Enrichment Fund and the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee.