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.