I light my menorah in the window and you should, too

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In the weeks before Hanukkah, with anticipation of the holiday brightly filling my mind, the darkening news of rising anti-Semitism in the U.S. began to filter in. As I pictured our menorahs burning in their usual place — the front windows of our home — a warning light began to blink.

Though Hanukkah represents a victory of light over darkness — by the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, which resulted in the rededication of the Second Temple — recent events caused me to rethink our window menorah lighting, turning me toward limiting our menorah kindling to family and friends.

But, surprisingly, like finding an extra Hanukkah candle in the box, a new U.S. Hanukkah postage stamp depicting a lit menorah in a window was an unexpected source of inspiration.

For 17 years we’ve lived on a block where there are no other Jewish families. We’ve proudly placed our menorahs in our front windows, publicizing the miracle of the holiday both to our neighbors and ourselves. Saying the blessings and lighting the candles is a mitzvah, according to the Talmud, and by doing so, we were also recognizing the blessing of our freedom of religion and expressing our Jewish identity.

In fact, it wasn’t really Hanukkah for me until I walked outside and looked at the lit menorah in my own window.

Why was I worried now? Since the previous Hanukkah, nothing had changed in our multiethnic and multidenominational neighborhood, a place where non-Jewish neighbors have wished me “Happy Hanukkah” and at Passover “Gut yontif.” But in the uncertain light of political change in our country, I was worried about what was emerging from the shadows: anti-Semitism online, attacks on Jewish journalists, the re-emergence of Jewish conspiracy stories, Jewish college students being confronted with swastikas. Was this a wise time to let our light shine?

Helping to banish my second thoughts, however, was that new stamp. The design — a traditional, branched menorah shown burning in a window against a background of falling snow — seemed innocuous enough, even unseasonably fanciful for those of us  in California. But there it was, a government-issued reminder that in the window, where your neighbors can see it, is the place from which your menorah should send out its glow.

Even so, a statement released by the Postal Service with the issue of the new stamp renewed my concerns when it reminded me that “at times in history when it was not safe for Jewish families to make a public declaration of faith, the menorah was set instead in a prominent place inside the home.” Though the statement went on to say that “today in the U.S., many families have renewed the tradition of displaying the menorah in windows during the holiday,” I still wondered if “today” was one of those “not safe” times in history.

Was it a good time to draw the light safely in and bring the flickering candles into the kitchen? After all, that’s the way my mother responded in New York in the 1930s, when anti-Semitism in America was on the rise.

What was I afraid of? It wasn’t as if I’m expecting a replay of the now famous Billings, Montana, incident in 1993, when a  brick was thrown through the bedroom window of a 5-year-old Jewish boy who was displaying a menorah.

Adding to my sense of Jewish déjà vu, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Jonathan Greenblatt, announced at the organization’s yearly conference in mid-November that the American Jewish community had “not seen this level of anti-Semitism in mainstream political and public discourse since the 1930s.”

What that challenged was not my faith that miraculous things can happen, like oil burning for eight days, but my faith in another kind of miracle — freedom of religion and American pluralism.

After national calls to deport Muslims, a recent spike in hate crimes occurred in New York — with the majority of incidents directed at Jews. I realized that the menorah burning in the window isn’t just a message to fellow Jews. It’s a signal to any person that this is a free and safe place for anyone to openly identify and show his or her beliefs. If I, or anyone, were to light one candle at Hanukkah in full view of neighbors, contrary to the song, it wouldn’t be just for the Maccabee children — it would be for all.

It doesn’t make any difference which side you were on in the recent election. What must be decided is how with candles, oil or electric bulbs we would vote now. My mother’s parents, Joseph and Rebecca, were strangers here about a century ago. I feel the welcoming menorah light represents the freedom for which they left everything behind, and rekindles the core Jewish belief of welcoming the stranger.

To push back the shadows, won’t you join me in a Hanukkah show of light? During the eight nights of Hanukkah, place your menorah where passers-by can see it. Take a photo or selfie, and post it on social media with the hashtag #menorahinthewindow. Share the city, town or place where you are, and let us know why you are doing it.

The strength of what we can do as a community — that is a miracle, too.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at [email protected].


Edmon Rodman
Edmon J. Rodman

Edmon J. Rodman writes about Jewish life from his home in Los Angeles and is the author of the weekly Guide for the Jewplexed on virtualjerusalem.com. Contact him at [email protected].