By Paul L. Newman
Some Jews were beaming with pride that there were large displays of Chanukah menorahs on public property in prominent locations in cities across America and around the world.
Sometimes, non-Jewish political leaders were given the honor of lighting these large religious displays.
I, for one, am not happy, but before anyone burns a Jewish star on my lawn or calls me a Jewish Grinch, allow me to explain.
I’m not opposed to Chabad leading a menorah parade through Center City, as it’s akin to parades organized by other groups, both religious and secular. Nor am I against Chabad, the group that’s universally behind these PDJ (public displays of Judaism), but I am against placing a menorah on public property.
In the past, Chabad has been involved in multiple lawsuits in several cities as to whether it can erect a menorah on public property. The Supreme Court ruled that a menorah, like a Christmas tree, is not a religious symbol, and therefore can be erected on public property.
One doesn’t have to be a rabbi or a constitutional law expert to know that a menorah is not a secular object. One can celebrate Christmas without a Christmas tree, however, it’s nearly impossible to celebrate Chanukah without a menorah of some kind to hold the candles/oil.
Furthermore, the menorah reminds Jews of the miracle that occurred after the Maccabees captured the Second Temple. A mere day’s worth of pure oil, used to light the Second Temple’s menorah, miraculously lasted eight days.
The menorah was so representative of Judaism that an image of one, stolen by Jerusalem’s Roman conquerors, was carved into Rome’s Arch of Titus. It’s challenging to find a synagogue that doesn’t employ a menorah image carved into its building, depict one in its stained glass or possess a large replica inside its sanctuary. After Israel was founded, a menorah was selected as the emblem of Israel.
Some may wonder why I, a proud Jew, would seemingly be against the prominent public display of this Jewish religious symbol.
I grew up in Cincinnati with a Jewish population that’s less than 10% of Philadelphia’s. Thirty years ago, Chabad insisted on placing a large menorah on the main square of Cincinnati. Soon thereafter, the local Ku Klux demanded the right to erect its cross on Fountain Square. Despite objections from a host of Cincinnati community leaders, including the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, federal courts permitted the Klan cross to be erected on Fountain Square.
Luckily, “good vandals” destroyed it every time it was erected and re-erected. In 1995, the KKK won a Supreme Court case allowing it to erect its symbol of hate on the lawn of Ohio’s state capital after Chabad was permitted to erect a menorah there.
Moreover, it’s religiously incongruent that America’s non-Jewish presidents and mayors, like Jim Kenney, have been honored with lighting a Chanukah menorah. I understand their being invited to attend a ceremony and respectfully watching the event, but there’s something fundamentally not kosher with non-Jewish officeholders leading a Jewish ritual.
Chabad has done much good. The 1972 Jewish Catalog listed fewer than 100 Chabad centers in America and a mere handful worldwide. Today, there are more than 3,500 Chabad centers across America and around the world. Chabad has provided welcoming places for unaffiliated Jews to reconnect with their Judaism.
Chabad locations also serve as safe havens for Jews traveling to the most remote parts of the world. A friend’s daughter is alive today because a Chabad rabbi rescued her from a filthy third-world Laotian hospital and brought her to Bangkok for proper treatment. She wouldn’t be alive today without that Chabad rabbi.
The explosive growth of antisemitism and the ability of the KKK or another hate group to be legally protected in erecting symbols of hate on public property cement my feeling that the Supreme Court erred in its multiple decisions on menorahs.
Paul L. Newman of Merion Station is an amateur historian of African American history working on a miniseries docudrama on the African American civil rights movement of the first half of the 20th century.