The Hanukkah Menorah Becomes a National American Phenomenon

by Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD

Two significant historical events facilitated the growing awareness for Americans that Hanukkah was a major holiday for Jewish people and that it was fast becoming attendant to Christmas festivities. The first was the formal recognition of Hanukkah by the White House that was accompanied by a menorah lighting ceremony. On December 17, 1979, President Jimmy Carter became the first sitting American president to participate in the lighting of a public menorah, located across the street from the White House in Lafayette Park. Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Abraham Shemtov attended the presidential lighting ceremony and presented President Carter with a small menorah as a keepsake.

It is interesting to note that controversy surrounds whether President Carter actually lit a candle on the menorah or lit a candle that then was used to light the shamash (the servant candle that is used to light the other candles on the menorah). Two pieces of evidence support the fact that President Carter did light a candle on the menorah. The entry for December 17, 1979, at 6:53 until 7:05 p.m. in the official daily diary for President Jimmy Carter records that “The President illuminated the Middle Menorah Candle.” Furthermore, official photographs archived in the Carter Presidential Library depict the president actually lighting the middle candle on the menorah (presumably the shamash). However, representatives of the Hasidic movement, Chabad-Lubavitch, question this occurrence.

In 1982, the menorah lit in Lafayette Park was publicly referred to as the National Menorah by President Ronald Reagan, thereby equating its lighting with the National Christmas tree lighting. The first display of a menorah in the White House is ascribed to President George H. W. Bush in 1989, upon receiving it as gift from Synagogue Council of America. By 1993, the menorah lighting rite had officially moved into the White House when President Bill Clinton hosted a small ceremony for school children in the Oval Office. In 2001, George W. Bush became the first president to hold a White House Hanukkah party at which he actually lit a menorah.

The second historical factor that contributed to the presence of Hanukkah in the public domain was the campaign waged by Chabad-Lubavitch to place menorahs in as many public venues throughout the United States, from malls to city parks and halls. The drive was initiated by the late Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in the 1970s. In 1980, Rabbi Schneerson issued a directive encouraging menorah lightings in public places and initiated a movement by sending rabbinic emissaries to cities throughout the United States with the express mission of publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah to inspire pride in Jewish onlookers.

At first, public displays of menorahs began appearing in cities with large Jewish populations, such as Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Media coverage of the menorah lighting ceremonies in these cities often showed the local mayor and prominent government officials helping Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis to light menorahs.  The first such lighting, in 1974, occurred in front of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and involved a small group of Jews holding a small menorah. The following year, in San Francisco, the local Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, Chaim Drizin, and public radio station KQED program director Zev Putterman arranged for concert promoter Bill Graham to sponsor the creation of a twenty-two-foot-high mahogany menorah to be erected in Union Square.  The menorah, affectionately called Mama Menorah, was erected next to Macy’s ornate Christmas tree, the largest public tree in the city. Bill Graham also underwrote an attendant festival – now called the Bill Graham Menorah Day Festival, which includes musical performances, arts and crafts, food – that is capped by the Chabad-Lubavitch-sponsored menorah lighting. Perhaps the largest menorah lighting to take place in this early period was at Dolphins Stadium in Miami in 1987, when Florida Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Tennenhaus lit a menorah in front of seventy thousand people. In this same year, Rabbi Schneerson launched a global Hanukkah menorah lighting campaign.

As the Chabad-Lubavitch mission to light menorahs extended to more and more cities, certain American citizens, including those of the Jewish faith, began to question whether erecting a Hanukkah menorah in a public space was constitutionally protected. This same question arose about Christmas displays in the public domain, particularly those featuring a crèche, a religious Christmas symbol of the nativity scene that is regularly featured in Christmas celebrations. Passions flared when Christmas wars broke out between those who wanted a complete separation of religion and state and those who desired increased religious displays; as a result, citizens pressured their elected representatives to decide in favor of their, often conflicting, points of view.

Complaints ultimately led to the court house where lawsuits were filed by proponents and antagonists. Ultimately, these cases reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court’s decisions were anxiously awaited because much was at stake for municipalities and schools throughout the country; they wanted a final resolution to the question of whether the menorah and the crèche could legally be displayed in the public domain. The toll of these lawsuits and countersuits was the creation of a divisive atmosphere at the local level where communities remained uncertain from year to year whether their Christmas and Hanukkah plans could proceed.

Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, PhD is Executive Director of American Friends of Rabin Medical and the Rabbi of Metropolitan Synagogue in Manhattan. He is an historian, photo-ethnographer, and cultural anthropologist, and is also the author of Greek Jewry in the Twentieth Century, 1913-1983: Patterns of Jewish Communal Survival in the Greek Provinces before and after the Holocaust.

Adapted from A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut, foreword by Jonathan D. Sarna, published last month by Rutgers University Press.

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6 Responses to “The Hanukkah Menorah Becomes a National American Phenomenon”

  1. avatar

    Thank you Rabbi Plaut, for a wonderful recounting of historical and acceptable displays of religion in the public square. Of course, these should have stayed the way they were, but unfortunately “certain American citizens, including those of the Jewish faith, began to question whether erecting a Hanukkah menorah in a public space was constitutionally protected.”

    Clearly, until post-1948 lawsuits by the ACLU et al that established a so-called separation, the latter clearly and Constitutionally did not exist — and still does not Constitutionally exist. As if there were no greater social issue to address, the far left (and Christian-paranoid) ilk of our Jewish bretheren (and others) have created a foolish notion that does nothing but divide the population when it should unite it.

    The abundance of evidence whereby our Founders mixed religious symbols on property of the State — because of their deep religious faith, AND respect for faiths other than their own — is indisputable. Kudos to our Christian bretheran who (Heavens forbid!) want a creche or a Christmas tree on the town square, and shame on the Rabbis (sorry guys and gals, but it started with some of you) who protested such things on spurious grounds of so-called State endorsement.

    I, for one, love America’s Christianity (much less many other American faiths) who care to promote the best of their tenets and icons on the public square. American Christianity, besides its religious beauty (whatever denominations) has protected minority religions and made it possible for Jewish Americans to live in an unprecented Golden Age. And that’s precisely what “the free exercise thereof” means in Amendment #1; no “establishment OF religion” does not preclude the expression in public space FOR religion — including ours.

    Give it a rest, and let’s enjoy whatever religious symbols share the public platform, for we must remember but for this great country and those religious beliefs that symbol could have been a swastika . . .

  2. avatar

    Yes, let’s just be grateful they let us live here and for goodness sake, don’t make any trouble……

    • Larry Kaufman

      There are clearly times when “making trouble” is the only responsible thing to do.

      While I agree that both Hanukkah and Christmas displays and celebrations do not belong among the activities of government, we’ll never exclude Christmas, and as long as it’s there, Hanukkah should share the stage. So this is not an issue to be pursued.

      But sha, shtill as a general policy — never!

  3. avatar

    Hanukkah and Christmas displays (and any other religious icons) and celebrations should always be welcome among the activities of government; it is our heritage, resides at the core of our Founding Philosphies, and there simply is no Constitutional prohibition against it.

    And what does “sha, shtill” mean?


    • Larry Kaufman

      Sha,shtill means Be quiet, with an undertone of Don’t make waves. Sorry — I generally do translate when I use foreign locutions.

  4. avatar

    Thank you!

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