Hiding in plain sight on Hanukkah

In Alabama, a Hanukkah House becomes a light unto the nations.

Illustration of a lit menorah on the sixth night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Photo by Mendy Hechtman/Flash90.
Illustration of a lit menorah on the sixth night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Photo by Mendy Hechtman/Flash90.
Larry Brook
Larry Brook
Larry Brook is the owner of the Birmingham, Ala.-based Southern Jewish Life magazine and editor and publisher of the monthly Israel InSight.

As Hanukkah approaches, the idea of showing up at high-profile public events may seem to go against the grain. There are numerous articles about people in the Jewish community doing the exact opposite—hiding any outward signs of being Jewish.

The number of antisemitic incidents is rising nationally. Some people are posting on social media that, as a precaution, they will not place Hanukkah menorahs in their windows, lest they become a target. On campus, Jewish students often hide their identity lest they incur the wrath of “anti-Zionist not antisemitic” professors, and thus become subject to more critical grading pens.

Rather than give in, however, it is time to take pride in who we are and proclaim it openly.

Not only is there a menorah in our window, there is a 14-foot by 20-foot menorah on the front of the house, made from 3,000 blue and white lights.

We’ve been doing this for about 15 years at our Hanukkah House in Alabama—adding to the display each year, including a seven-foot spinning dreidel, a total of about 10,000 lights and Birmingham’s symbol, Vulcan (a cast iron statue of the Roman god of the forge, ironically), holding a menorah.

This year we added a faux state historical marker.

The display is unusual, but it is based on the philosophy that if Hanukkah is the festival of lights, why did we abandon the field and let the Christians have all the fun?

For a decade, we have been a stop on the Wacky Tacky Holiday Lights Tour, which benefits Fresh Air Family, providing scholarships to its science-based Gross Out Camp for kids, including those who have escaped violence or are suicide orphans.

Each of the four nights, eight to 10 buses come by to see the Hanukkah lights, and I give a quick shpiel about Hanukkah while passing out chocolate gelt.

I’ll explain what a sufganiyah is, because of the Krispy Kreme-style “Hot Sufganiyot Now” sign. I’ll joke about needing some guy on the roof just like other houses in the area have, then point to our fiddler by the chimney.

Hanukkah was the first war for religious freedom, I will tell them. It was a fight for our right to be ourselves rather than emulate the larger culture. After a pause, I’ll admit I’m saying that with thousands of lights in our yard. It’s a way to poke fun at assimilation.

I’ll even mention that, without the events of Hanukkah in 165 BCE, certain events in Bethlehem that non-Jews celebrate could not have happened.

Now, I’m not naive. There was an arson attempt outside my congregation recently, though all indications are that it was the random act of a firebug and not antisemitic. Last year, someone stole the tall hanukkiah from outside Chabad of Huntsville.

There’s always a chance that something could happen. But we can’t let the haters win.

What did Rabbi Moshe Cohen do after the theft in Huntsville? He ordered more hanukkiot and placed them in several locations around the area. There were expressions of concern and support from the Christian community in Huntsville.

After the arson attempt, the state director for Christians United for Israel activated her prayer chains in a show of support.

When something negative happens, we’ve seen that kind of support from our neighbors routinely. When the rash of bomb threats against JCCs happened in 2017, a group of evangelical churches raised $111,000 to help pay for the security needs of our JCC.

That’s Trump’s America. That’s Biden’s America. That’s just plain America. And that’s where our focus should be.

Our Hanukkah display is visible in the community. When my press credentials were being checked at one of the World Games venues this summer, the guy said, “You’re the Hanukkah house!” That happens very frequently.

It is incredible to walk on to one of the Wacky Tacky buses and be greeted by a group of third-grade girls, decked out in their Christmas outfits and reindeer headbands, singing the “Dreidel Song” to me. Or getting on a bus to the chants of “Hanukkah! Hanukkah!” or listening to a group of inebriated twentysomethings sing Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song” (I didn’t have the heart to tell them I’m not a fan of Sandler).

In 10 years, there has been just one time when I sensed someone was heading down a bad road with his question, and I deflected it.

We’ve had people say the Hanukkah House is their favorite stop on the tour (it must be the chocolate), we’ve had couples talk about it being part of their first date.

Thousands have seen the Hanukkah House on Wacky Tacky, and perhaps a few dozen have been Jewish. Countless more have stumbled on it or heard about it from a friend. That’s thousands of people having a great experience in a Jewish context, and many of them may not really know anyone Jewish.

This is not even to mention being told by people in the Jewish community that their kids like seeing themselves represented.

Hanukkah is about bringing light to the world. We can’t do that behind drawn curtains.

At a time when there is so much misunderstanding and misperception, being visible and accessible is how we build understanding. Standing up and showing our pride is how we gain respect.

Turn the so-called December Dilemma into a December opportunity. And you don’t even need to become the power company’s best friend to do so.

Show up and show out, and after Hanukkah, find ways to keep doing it.

Haters gonna hate. We can’t let them dictate.

Larry Brook is editor of Southern Jewish Life, the deep south’s Jewish magazine, and Israel InSight, a magazine for Israel’s Christian friends.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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