BY JEANETTE FRIEDMAN
Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem thousands of years ago, after the Jews fought a hard-won battle for religious freedom. The light of the menorah symbolizes the holiday and lights up the world — reminding us that we all must remain vigilant and continue to hold onto our freedoms.
In 1974, in a poignant and moving moment, a Soviet émigré stood in front of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, and lit a small Chanukah menorah to celebrate the festival of religious freedom and light. It was the first public lighting of a Chanukah menorah in the United States and completely appropriate. The man was Rabbi Avraham Shemtov, founding national director of American Friends of Lubavitch, (Chabad), and he was surrounded by just and handful of people.Thirty years later, public lightings of Chanukiot (Chanukah menorahs) are part of the holiday season, along with Christmas trees, Santa Claus and symbols of Kwanza. According to Chabad, there are 15,000 public candle lightings around the globe this year — including many in towns throughout New Jersey — from Teaneck to Trenton, from Hoboken to Haddonfield, from Morristown to Margate — a bright victory for religious freedom, and a result of legal battles fought in courtrooms from sea to shining sea.
Chanukah on the National Mall
President Harry Truman may have been the first U.S. President to be presented with a menorah (Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion gave it to him in 1951), but no one lit it in public. In 1984, U.S. President Jimmy Carter was the first to light a menorah on the National Mall. Taking the interfaith example a step further, President Ronald Reagan hosted the first Chanukah party in the White House and also lit the Menorah on the Mall. In 1993, President Bill Clinton was the first president to host a menorah-lighting ceremony in the White House proper, and George W. Bush followed his example. This year, thousands watched on the National Mall as Jack Lew, the Orthodox Jewish director of the Office of Management and Budget, lit the first candle. Virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman played two Chanukah songs and conducted the U.S. Navy Band in a song for peace and God Bless America.
The Mama of All Menorahs
The prototype public candle lighting ceremony was created in San Francisco in 1975, when Holocaust survivor and rock ‘n roll impresario, Bill Graham funded the creation of a 22-foot tall mahogany menorah in San Francisco nicknamed "Mama Menorah." Graham, killed in a helicopter crash in 1991, felt the menorah embodied the light of the American Dream. After his death, The Bill Graham Menorah Festival continued under the direction of Chabad Rabbi Yossi Langer.
The largest menorah in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, annually graces Grand Army Plaza on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. It was designed by contemporary artist Yaacov Agam in 1977 and follows the design specifications of the medieval scholar, Maimonides, based on the design of the original menorah in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Legal Battles for Religious Freedom Continue
In 1980, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the Chabad movement, issued a "Declaration on the Obligation to Illuminate the World", and then asked for a global menorah campaign in 1987. As a result, public menorahs began to proliferate, along with lawsuits seeking to prevent them from being part of "Season's Greetings" celebrations. Most of the cases were brought by secular Jews and based on the "religious establishment clause" of the First Amendment — the same amendment that guarantees freedom of expression, religious or otherwise, and that's when things got complicated.
In 1987, the Miami Herald reported that menorah displays caused rifts in local communities. In 1988, the American Jewish Congress issued a report criticizing the menorahs and offered legal assistance to protestors. In 1989, there were cases in Des Moines (lost), Burlington (lost), Pittsburgh (won), Los Angeles (ultimately lost in the Ninth District), and Chicago (lost). Later cases were brought in Grand Rapids (won), White Plains (won), Atlanta (won), Indianapolis (lost) and Jersey City (won)
The Supreme Court and Pittsburgh
The 1989 Pittsburgh case, presented before the U.S. Supreme Court by constitutional lawyer Nathan Lewin, was typical. A space where a menorah is permitted often depends on whether or not that space is a public forum — regularly used for public expression — or whether it is a ‘closed' government space where the general public does not usually speak out.