The Hanukkah menorah and American symbolism

The audience waits for the lighting of the US National Hanukka Menorah on the Ellipse in Washington on December 6, 2015 (photo credit: SWAIT SERKAN GURBUZ / REUTERS)
The audience waits for the lighting of the US National Hanukka Menorah on the Ellipse in Washington on December 6, 2015
According to many studies of the American Jewish community, Hanukkah is the holiday most observed by the nation’s Jewry.
My own personal interest in Hanukkah was developed when I was growing up in Atlanta. At the Shearith Israel Synagogue, I had the opportunity to participate in Hanukkah plays as a Hanukkah candle and sometimes even as a Maccabee. For me it was a matter of great pride because in my public school, James L. Key, we began singing Christmas carols at special assemblies at least three weeks before the major festival.
As one of the few Jewish boys in a sea of Christians, I was somewhat perplexed – what should I do about the “Jesus” name? In that period after World War II, a time when ecumenicism showed its face only intermittently, Jews using Christian “holy” words was frowned upon. I asked my parents Anna and Louis Geffen what to do.
As American Jews they felt that I should be at the Christmas carol assemblies but should refrain from saying the name of “Jesus.” I must admit that the carol “Away in the Manger” still sticks with me, minus that holy word.
Since Christmas and Hanukkah occurred not too far from each other, I felt so strongly about our Festival of Lights that I persuaded the principal of the Key School to ask my mother if she could come and speak about Hanukkah and display the menorah and dreidel; he agreed. It was announced that the Hanukkah assembly would be held during school hours and that students could bring their parents. What I remember vividly is that as the principal introduced my mother, he said proudly that Jews are also very good Americans. Then he asked us all to rise, face the American flag in the school auditorium and sing the “Star Spangled Banner.” I and my fellow Jewish students sang it with much gusto.
My next patriotic Hanukkah occurred in the US Army when I was a chaplain at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. One of my predecessors had persuaded the quartermaster that for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, a large menorah was needed, which could be lit electronically outside the building where my office was located.
When the US Army does something, they do it right. The chaplain, who initiated the project sometime in the early 60s, was the recipient of an eight-foot high Hanukkah menorah on which was painted depictions of Judah Maccabee and Antiochus. Judah had his sword drawn; Antiochus was on a throne with a scepter in his hand. The menorah had nine electric sockets where bulbs could be screwed in.
In 1965 and 1966, our Jewish soldiers, the children of officers and the 15 Jewish families of Lawton, Oklahoma, lit the menorah together each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. Sometimes 20 people were present; other times, 50 were there – and once, even a hundred. Proudly, a soldier would screw the bulb in and it shined brightly to mark the celebration.The tradition at Fort Sill was to have a Hanukkah party on the Sunday of the holiday at one of the large mess halls on the post.The major treat was fresh potato latkes. Several hundred pounds of potatoes were peeled; cooks fried Hanukkah latkes in new, large frying pans using only Wesson kosher oil. There were army-issue cans of applesauce and Barton’s candy sent by the women’s chapters of the Jewish Welfare Board. The first year, 150 came; the second year, with the Vietnam buildup, over 300 were present, along with all the Christian chaplains who were our guests. Small Hanukkah menorahs and candles sent by the Jewish Welfare Board were lit.
As I watched, I saw this as an expression of the freedom of religion in the US. As the leader that day, I asked for our national anthem to be sung.
When 9/11 occurred, it was a most difficult period for all Americans, which clearly is an understatement. In Scranton, Pennsylvania, where I was a rabbi, we held many extra services because we wanted our Jewish community, along with our Christian and small Moslem population, to see how sad we felt – but also what hope we had that America would survive this terrible attack. However, there was an unusual moment for our synagogue in the months after 9/11.
In the summer with my activities committee, we had planned a congregational trip to the Lower East Side to see the newly renovated Eldridge Synagogue – and also to taste delicious Jewish culinary delights. The trip was scheduled for the early part of December. After 9/11, few people visited New York because there were major security checks at all the bridges and tunnels. Cars and buses waited for hours. My congregants said, “Rabbi, we should cancel.” At first I wavered; then I said, “We are going no matter what!” I had a plan.
When we arrived in New York, it was before Hanukkah, but I had brought along the large bronze Hanukkah menorah from the synagogue – with candles, of course. I also brought a large American flag. I asked the trip participants to buy and bring small gifts for adults and children.
The streets of the East Side were empty when the bus stopped; few people could be seen. I asked some policemen if they would invite passersby to where our bus was parked. After about a quarter of an hour, some 30 New Yorkers had followed the policemen to our bus.
I put the menorah on a small table I had brought. I asked one of our members to hold the staff of the American flag. And then I spoke.
“My fellow Americans, this is a difficult time for America: Who knows when we might be attacked again? In our tradition, the holiday of Hanukkah which starts next week is based on a major incident in the survival of the Jewish people. The small band of Jewish Maccabees fought the hordes of the Greek army and triumphed,” I said.
“Judaism was really saved back then because it could have been destroyed. The plotters of 9/11 wanted to destroy the spirit of the American citizens along with the buildings they destroyed. In these passing weeks since that catastrophe, Americans have revived and become revitalized – and will not be defeated.”
One of my members lit the Hanukkah candles on that New York street. The blessings were recited – even though it was not Hanukkah yet. I asked the holder of the flag to wave it proudly and I called upon everyone there to sing “God Bless America.” We gave all those present the Hanukkah gifts we had brought.
I took the menorah and flag back to Scranton, and we lit it at the shul every night – in a true spirit of thanksgiving for the United States of America.