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).
When I see the word “Palestine,” a number of images come to mind: questions regarding borders, refugees, the city of Jerusalem, and more Middle Eastern musings. But from now on, when I read or hear the word “Palestine,” I’ll think of something else as well. I’ll think of a small town – Palestine, Texas – and a man named Sam who owns a diner there.
This Friday, I was on my way to Waco, Texas to visit Congregation Agudath Jacob. Around 1:00 or so, my fellow Education Fellow Allison Poirier and I saw the official “Welcome to Palestine” sign on the side of the road! Needless to say, we were quite pleased with the name of this town. We made a few other nerdy Jewish Educator jokes related to the town’s name, but we soon realized that we were quite hungry. We decided to stop at the Dogwood Diner for lunch.
After ordering, a man walked over to our table. As occasionally happens for me, since I wear a kippah every day, he exclaimed: “That’s a Yarmulke, right?”
I replied that indeed it was! I always enjoy interactions like this, where I get to briefly explain why it is meaningful for me to wear this funny-looking Jewish hat, but I was in for a surprise this time around…
This man was Sam, owner of the diner. He explained that his ex-wife was Jewish. Years ago, Sam sent his children to a Jewish school in Dallas. Sam knew all about the Jewish community of Palestine, TX. He told us about a Jewish cemetery located right down the road, explained that there had been a congregation nearby until about a decade ago, and had a number of other interesting stories to share with us.
But Sam left us with more than just stories. He provided us an important insight as well. After a few minutes of conversation, Sam said to us, “Ya know, I grew up Muslim, reading the Qur’an. Then I married a Jew and learned about the Torah. And recently I’ve learned more about Christianity, and I’ve read the Bible. They’re really not so different.”
I did not realize that, upon walking into the Dogwood Diner, I would hear such important words of wisdom. We get bogged down in the differences between some of our religious traditions sometimes. And let’s be clear – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and every other world religion really are unique, and to say simply “they’re all basically the same” would be misguided. But we do share quite a bit in common. Monotheism is a common tenet, and Moshe (or Moses, or Musa) is viewed as a prophet by all three.
It is easy to lose track of our similarities sometimes, as we focus on what separates Jews from other religions – and even what separates one particular group of Jews from another. But we really do possess a number of common characteristics with other world religions. Sometimes we just need someone to remind us of that. Thankfully, I had Sam.
We find wisdom in unexpected places. Of course, somebody had inspired me with their thoughts about religion while I was in Palestine, Texas. With a town-name like that, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.
This blog post comes from Linnea Hurst, who interned in the ISJL’s Community Engagement department last summer.
I wasn’t raised with religion. Growing up, I always learned about religion through my friends or communities I have lived in—including through my internship experience at the ISJL last summer, where I gained a much richer understanding of Judaism.
This winter, my religious education took a new twist. I had the opportunity to travel around Spain after studying abroad in London. The first stop on my Spanish adventure was a sleepy medium-sized Southern city named Córdoba. To my surprise, I learned that in the 10th century Córdoba was the largest city in Western Europe, boasting 500,000 inhabitants. Even more spectacular than this fact was the fact that at the request of King Alfonzo, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars were all brought to his court in Córdoba to learn together and translate books from Arabic and Hebrew into Latin.
These three religions clearly existed in Córdoba without serious strife during the 10th century; a fact that today seems far-fetched. Although there is no synagogue left in the city, there is a large mosque which dates back to 784. Yet as with almost all non-Christian religions sites in Spain, something was built atop this mosque: in this case, a large cathedral sits smack dab in the middle. The contrasting architectural styles of the Cathedral and the Mosque depicts how although the Jews, Muslims, and Christians learned from each other as scholars in Córdoba in the 10th century this peace did not last long.
Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain in the 15th century. Only a lucky few synagogues and mosques, such as the mosque I saw in Córdoba, did not get completely destroyed.
When I reached central Spain, I still had not seen a synagogue and was curious if there were any still in the country. Jewish life seemed more like a memory there. In every city I visited in Southern Spain, there was a “Jewish Quarter,” where a thriving Jewish community had once lived very long ago, and none remained. When I visited the city of Toledo, which used to be Spain’s capital before Madrid, I finally found something more than a sign saying “barrio Judío”. In Toledo I visited Synagogue El Transito, founded in 1356 by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia who was the Treasurer to Peter of Castile. The building was not big, but as soon as I entered I could not take my eyes away from the ornate stucco decorations covering the walls. As I got closer I noticed that the walls were beautifully inscribed with both Hebrew and Arabic, a testament to the close ties between Judaism and Arabic culture in medieval Spain. The synagogue was temporarily turned into a Catholic Church after the expulsion of the Jews.
Leaving Spain was hard, and on the last day I decided I needed just one more adventure, just one more new city. I took a day trip to Segovia, where I spent all day entranced by the larger than life cathedral and imposing yet beautiful medieval castle. It wasn’t until the sun had set that I chanced upon a landmark from Segovia’s 14th century Jewish community. I was following a hiking trail back down a hill where I had watched the sunset when I came across two large pits with stone slabs. I knew immediately they must be something very old and very important and I just had to figure out what. Not far from the slabs were historical signs mostly in Spanish but with a little English. “Old Jewish Burial Ground…” the title read. It turns out that the Jewish quarter of Segovia, which was right across from this hill, was where the burial procession would originate.
I don’t know if I would have looked for those hidden remnants of Jewish life if not for my summer in the South, working for a Jewish organization. That was one great exposure to culture, which many might find unexpected; and now this, learning about three religions simply by walking the old medieval streets of Spain, where I learned there is something about being right there, something about the weight of history, that is truly unique.