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Creating Unity Out of Diversity

Creating Unity Out of Diversity

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''Public Menorah Lighting'' - by Alyse Radenovic
"Public Menorah Lighting" - by Alyse Radenovic

Chanukah is coming. And I’m excited. And seeing it in a new light. (I know, bad pun.)

By the time the delicious, intense floodwaters of the Tishrei holidays receded—with all the sounds, smells, prayers, feelings, ideas, soulful songs, poignant prayers and images they evoked—I was a bit sad, missing the intensity and more than a bit ready to resume normal life (whatever that is).

During the pleasant, quiet routine thatI received an interesting writing job started to fall into place during the month of Cheshvan, I received an interesting writing job. A Chabad rabbi was encountering some resistance getting permission from his local government to host a menorah-lighting on public grounds. Although it was late—a mere six-and-a-half weeks until the start of Chanukah—he wanted to try one last push. Could I compose a cogent letter to help him?

At first, it seemed a routine kind of request. He outlined some bullet points: a brief history of Chanukah, the sizable Jewish community that was the in the official’s constituency, the prevalence of public menorahs throughout the country and the world, including an extremely large one on the White House lawn.

As I wrote, I reflected, trying to think a bit deeper into how I could help this public official really relate to the holiday. And I started to get deeply excited.

I compared the story of Chanukah to the American Revolution. Honestly, I was first just looking for the right words to do my job. With an ulterior motive, of course—to try to score points and show our commonality with this non-Jewish man and play on his patriotism.

The parallels were great. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe beautifully explained many times, much like the American Revolution, an outnumbered band of patriots fought against a sophisticated, well-funded and well-equipped army for liberty and religious freedom . . . and won.

I imagined both groups. The Maccabees, fighting the great Syrian Greek empire with sticks, stones and faith. The nascent American army, fighting throughout the cold Northeastern winter for the chance to determine their own future and way of worshipping.

Bringing menorahs into the public square accomplishes many things—some primarily for our own Jewish people, and some for the greater public and greater good.

The large menorahs attract and inspire Jews who wouldn’t otherwise remember or know enough to celebrate on their own. There are countless stories, each priceless, of people whose dormant Jewish spark was ignited during the course of the holiday.

We, for example, connected several years ago with a middle-aged woman we now affectionately call “The Menorah Lady.” My husband was meeting a troubled young man in a coffee shop in a very non-Jewish neighborhood. Meanwhile, a woman ran to our car, asking if she could take a picture of the colorful menorah adorning its roof because, as she explained, “she had Jewish ancestors and was trying to do a little more research about that long-lost branch of her family.” Suffice it to say, we asked a few questions and helped her realize that she herself is Jewish. We’ve since become involved with her family, gently involving them in Shabbat dinner, Passover seders and more, even arranging a bris for her grandson a year after our first encounter.

Of course, these celebrations develop JewishI felt insecure, cast in the shadow of the dominant culture pride. My parents, the children of immigrants, came of age in the 1940s, starting their family in the 1950s. A predominant Jewish mindset then was “Be a Jew in the home and a man in the street,” or as a running joke in our family succinctly stated, “Dress British, Think Yiddish.” As a kid, I knew I was Jewish, but was queasy about standing out or making a fuss about it (I wasn’t alone in that). I felt insecure, cast in the shadow of the dominant culture. Why did we have to be different? Couldn’t we have a tree, too?

Years later, I’ve learned that being a Jewis indeed being the other. Avraham was the “Ivri,” the one standing alone on the other side of the river. Standing alone for deeper values, and then working with all his might to bring them to a sometimes recalcitrant and reluctant world.

We are often the canary in the coal mine. The hatred that first spews forth at the Jews spreads. On a positive note, the struggle to have menorahs alongside the crèches and trees is not just for our own Jewish pride or to send out an SOS to our lost brethren. It shines a vital message for all.

I sit at my kitchen table, sipping tea and thinking about the ramifications of menorah-lightings. I flash to the many painful current events and struggles that dominate the headlines these days: racial strife, anti-Semitic attacks, white supremacy, Israel-bashing, terror rampages.

With a flash, I knew what that public official, what our hurting country, needed to realize and started typing:

“A menorah, right there in the square, standing alongside other displays, sends an important message of tolerance and diversity. These crucial American values are more timely and urgent than everSymbolism is important to convey in the aftermath of Charlottesville, and other divisive and hateful occurrences. Symbolism is important. As every corporation who puts millions into advertising knows, branding is important. What an opportunity to put a symbol of freedom and tolerance, of diversity and mutual respect, in the public eye, supported by the leadership of our community.”

As the Rebbe emphasizes, we light the menorah at night, in the window or doorway, so its warmth reaches the lone estranged wanderer in the marketplace, and brings him in--so he’s no longer the other, alone and alienated.

Let it shine brightly and bring us together, Jew and non-Jew. Bring the other into the community, helping us truly realize “E pluribus unum” (“Out of one, many”) and Ahavat Yisrael (“Love for one’s fellow Jews”). In uniting, we’ll affirm our deep and profound commonality. We’ll strive together to increase G‑dliness and light, harmony and strength. What could be better than that?

Miriam Karp is an award-winning writer, artist, Judaic studies teacher and lecturer. Her paintings explore intimate moments in Jewish life. Her first book, Painting Zaidy’s Dream: A Memoir of a Searching Soul, shares her story of search. Miriam lives in Cincinnati with her husband and family. Visit her website here.
Artwork by Alyse Radenovic.
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