I recently happened upon a rather heated online discussion about the appropriateness of non-Jews putting menorahs in their windows during Hanukkah. The question being debated was whether that act is an acceptable symbol of support in these troubled times or if it’s a cultural appropriation that dilutes the meaning of our Jewish story and the reasons we celebrate the holiday.
To my knowledge, this gesture was never a consideration for gentiles in years past, and there certainly was never a social media campaign to spread the idea until just a few weeks ago, but everything is different now.
Following the October 7 massacre and subsequent unleashing of horrific expressions of public Jew-hatred, lots of us have been feeling a major void where support, empathy, concern, and allyship should have been. If our world was loving and just, and if the vision of total elimination of our tiny population of 16 million Jews had not been allowed to fester through the millennia, or if we were any other minority group, October 7, and every day after it, would have looked and felt very different. But, not only has support and understanding of our pain and our plight been sparse and muted, hostages remain in Gaza, pro-terrorist and anti-Jewish rhetoric and alliances are the new calling card to be considered cool, and Jews are now in justifiable fear for our personal safety around the world, proving once and for all, that anti-Zionism actually does equal antisemitism.
Of course, there are many ways that Jews are using this reality to inform their decision-making. On one side of the spectrum, it has led some to reluctantly try to conceal their Jewishness to avoid being targeted in one of the many hurtful and harmful ways that are all the rage right now. Mezuzot have been pried off of doorposts, Chai and Magen David necklaces have been unclasped and put back into jewelry boxes, and kippot have been replaced by baseball caps. As Hanukkah apprkoached, we began hearing about public menorah lightings being canceled, Hanukkah songs being taken out of school holiday concerts, and increased vandalism and bomb threats to Jewish spaces, prompting some Jews to stay away from public gatherings.
On the other side of the spectrum, of course, we have seen the exact opposite, with Jews deciding that this is THE moment to proclaim that no one will break our spirit or dictate our religious or cultural actions, and that we will not live in fear of these dangerous hate-mongers. These folks have not only continued wearing items that identify them as Jews, but some have even added more ways in which to walk through this time leaving no doubt as to their Jewish affiliation. Signs supporting Israel have been placed on lawns, new Jewish jewelry donned, and secular Jews have started wearing kippot, tzitzit, and participating in public tefillin wrapping gatherings. Synagogues, still dealing with post-pandemic reduced attendance, have become crowded with people whose Fridays and Saturdays have never before been reserved for Shabbat worship.
I understand both of these reactions and make no value judgement about either approach, but I personally chose the latter.
Enter a Jewish dad in LA, who was initially in the first camp, telling his son that they would not be decorating their home for Hanukkah this year, lest it mark them for harassment, or worse, in their neighborhood. A Christian friend asked him if he would feel supported and more comfortable displaying Hanukkah decorations if she put a menorah in her window, as well. That thoughtful offer prompted him to change his position entirely and create “Project Menorah” as way for non-Jews to show support and to designate their homes as a “safe space” for Jews. Project Menorah was meant to metaphorically send some light from windows of gentile neighbors toward the Jewish community during these dark times. Seeing the printed menorahs that you could copy and color from the website he created, reminded me of my own childhood in the 1970s, in which some neighbors put signs in their windows to let kids know that if they needed a safe haven, they just had to knock on that door. A more recent iteration of this are the signs that publicly welcome the LGBTQ community or immigrants, making no mistake about the support, safe space, and allyship they are offering.
I don’t know how many non-Jews around the world chose to participate in Project Menorah in some way, but this idea was picked up by news stations throughout the US, splashed all over the internet, and was even featured on Good Morning America. Six of my Christian friends purchased electric menorahs, placed them in their front windows, and have posted photos of them on Facebook with messages like this one from my childhood friend, Sandy: “For my Jewish friends. I love the entire Jewish community and I stand with you now and always! #projectmenorah“
One of the arguments against the Project Menorah concept is the issue of cultural appropriation. I am sensitive to and a firm believer that our Jewish story is for us to tell. Our rituals are for us to enact. Our traditions have been passed down for generations and connect directly to our own experiences, not those who adhere to other religions. Last spring, when I learned that some Christians annually hold Passover Seders, my anger was palpable. I’m not talking about Jews inviting non-Jews to join us at our Seders. I’m referring to Seders being coopted by Christians as a device for sharing their own narrative. They follow the Haggadah, but reconfigured the Exodus as a metaphor for salvation that comes from Jesus. No. No. No. To me, that feels very much that the Jews, and our seminal Jewish story, are being used to support a replacement theology and a messianic vision that has, through the ages, actually been used as a justification for trying to eliminate us in one way or another. I am NOT OK with those Christian Seders.
But, to use a word recently invoked to shamefully justify inaction by university presidents as Jewish students have been subjected to relentless antisemitism, harassment, and threats of violence against them, on the Project Menorah issue, I do think “context” matters. Christians didn’t go out and buy menorahs to co-opt something that is uniquely ours – our story of fighting for religious freedom, rededicating the Holy Temple, and staving off more massacres and exiles from our holy land, at least for a while – in order to promulgate their own religious beliefs. Instead, they are placing menorahs in the window to show solidarity with us. There is no Christian theology attached to this gesture and it has no messianic sub plot. It truly is to show that, as we see daily protests with slogans supporting our annihilation, posters of child hostages being ripped down by so-called “social warriors”, and students trying to make it safely to their dorm rooms after being harassed and told that Hitler was right, that we do have a few friends who want us to feel safe in their presence.
As I was pondering this issue, I was reminded of the myth of the King of Denmark, who was said to have affixed a yellow Jewish star to his clothing when the nazis forced Jews to wear them. I have even heard a version of the story in which the king ordered everyone in his country to wear the stars, to make it hard to determine who was and wasn’t Jewish. Historians are sure that none of this really happened, but the story persists. I believe the reason we hold onto that story is because it speaks to our desire for those around us to more frequently enact meaningful gestures that show they care and stand in solidarity with us. This is why I am pro Menorah Project. In the aftermath of October 7, I, for one, am on the lookout for any tangible, public, unequivocal statements that our non-Jewish community cares that we exist, and that they want to make sure we continue to do so. Those Menorahs in the windows of non-Jewish homes are providing me with at least 8 nights of feeling that, and in our world gone crazy, that is another reason to feel grateful during Hanukkah.