Sunday, December 13, 2009

No two Hanukkah celebrations could be more different than that in Seattle and that in Beersheba. If I’m going to be perfectly honest about it, I have to say that every year I get nostalgic about the Hanukkah celebrations Chabad in Seattle sponsored.

In the first place, in Seattle, it almost always rained on the first night of Hanukkah – the only variation in the pattern was whether it was a monsoon-like downpour or whether it was merely misting.

Rain in Beersheba is unusual at any time of the year, but that’s not the only difference. I think the big difference was the uniqueness of the event in Seattle.
By the time Hanukkah came around, everyone was already saturated with images of Santa, reindeer and elves. Music from that other holiday had seeped into your psyche -- not that any of that was bad, of course, but still, when, on a rainy December night, one of Seattle’s most glitzy shopping centers turned itself over to the holiday of Hanukkah instead, it was something special.

Many Seattle-area Chabad shuls had their own public Hanukkah menorah lightings, but the one sponsored by the original Chabad House and associated congregation, Sharei Tefillah Lubavitch in Seattle’s north end, was the biggest. It attracted Jews from all over Seattle, Chabadnik or not, not to mention a significant number of non-Jews who enjoyed coming for the festivities every year. It took place at University Plaza, which was also a little unusual. University Plaza was the closest big shopping center to all the Chabad north-end institutions, but because it was such an upscale place – one of those elegant spots where potted-plant-and-tree lined brick walkways wind among glittering shops and trendy cafes -- I doubt many of us shopped there very often.

Even so, on the first night of Hanukkah, it was ours – or so it seemed.

The Hanukkah menorah was huge – so tall that whoever lighted it had to climb a pretty good sized ladder – and stood in the center of the entrance to the Plaza. I often wondered what the view must be, from on top of that ladder – most years, I expect that all you’d see below is a sea of umbrellas.

Not that the rain dampened anyone spirits – there was always a lively klezmer band, plenty of Hanukkah songs and even in the hardest rain, there’s be someone dancing, getting wet. Some group or another was sure to use the occasion to make and sell latkes, so the aroma of frying potatoes and the warmth from the fry pans added to the atmosphere. It was definitely a family celebration, newborns on up.

Not just kids, either, but pets. A lot of us brought our four-legged companions, many wearing their own coats, on leashes. I remember the debate that was sparked one year when some woman defended her dog’s obligation to wear a kippa –no kidding, a wee little kippa pinned between the dog’s ears. “Of course Mikey is wearing a kippa,” she kept telling everyone. “He’s a boy.” I don’t recall any halachic ruling on the matter, but it was that kind of night: everyone from all strains of Judaism – including none at all – came, and had a great time.

Goodness knows, in Israel there are raucous holiday celebrations, too, including for Hanukkah. But the atmosphere is different here – every public building has a big Hanukkah menorah somewhere, usually on the roof. So does virtually every home – this is a celebration all Jews mark, not just those who consider themselves observant. Then, too, there’s not a single Santa Claus to be spotted anywhere, nor a note of seasonal music heard. So what’s missing is the sense of being a member of a tiny minority celebrating its own holiday among the much-larger community.

When everyone celebrates the same thing, it’s hard not to take it for granted.
Although Chabad “menorah” lightings are getting to be commonplace all over the US, too. (To be correct, it’s worth noting that the candleholder we light on Hanukkah, with nine places for candles, is a ‘chanukia’. A “menorah” is a seven-branched replica of the candelabra that once stood in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.)

This year, there was relatively little furor over Chabad’s legal right to erect their Hanukkah menorahs anywhere in the US, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Chairman of Lubavitch Educational and Social Services Divisions said. That’s partly because this is the 21st anniversary of the landmark US Supreme Court ruling in Allegheny vs. ACLU, in which the Court ruled that placing Chabad-owned Hanukkah menorahs in public spaces did not violate the Constitution’s establishment clause.

Not that opposition doesn’t exist – in fact, in Seattle, in 2006, there was a major brouhaha over Chabad’s desire to erect a public Hanukkah menorah at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, along with the 14 Christmas trees that already decorated the airport. But rather than allow the Hanukkah menorah, the sullen SeaTac administration instead took down all the Christmas trees. You can only imagine the furor that resulted.

Due to the outcry, the artificial Christmas trees were replaced within a few days, but to this day – so far as I know -- a Hanukkah menorah has never been permitted.

Funny, isn’t it? There’s a huge Hanukkah menorah in Red Square, there’s one at the Great Wall of China, one in front of the Eiffel Tower, a Hanukkah menorah in the Gaza strip, for crying out loud – not to mention thousands of places all over the US. ‘SeaTac’ Airport remains as one of the very few places on earth to still reject the symbol.

Which is all to the good, the irrepressibly optimistic Chabadniks say. Whenever there’s opposition or publicity surrounding the erection of a Hanukkah menorah, news media cover it, and as a result, more and more people are educated about the history of the holiday, its meaning and observance. Even the landmark lawsuit -- Allegheny vs. ACLU – worked to Chabad’s benefit – the case is now part of the curriculum at many law schools. As the students study, the goal of publicizing the Chanukah miracle is achieved a thousand-fold. “What the Rebbe accomplished with his encouragement here is unbelievable,” said attorney Charles Saul who litigated the case.

Pictured above is the Hanukkah menorah that was lighted in Vienna, Austria on Saturday night, where a very different kind of opposition took place. A Muslim man attacked Rabbi Dov Gruzman, the Chabad Rabbi who was conducting the public lighting, first striking him with punches and blows.

Gruzman told Arutz Sheva that the Muslim raced towards the entrance at the beginning of the ceremony and began to curse the Jews who were there and the Jewish people in general. “I tried to hold him off, to keep him away from the entrance and he bit me really hard, and that’s how he injured me,” Gruzman said.

Not that it discouraged the good rabbi. It only strengthened his resolve. “We are glad that such an event occurred,” he said. “Today, because of what happened, we are planning [a much larger event]. We increased the number of sufganiot [Chanukah jelly doughnuts] from 50 to 700 – and this is our answer to the attack and to anti-Semitism.”

Hanukkah someach, everyone!

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