Giving the Festival of Lights a Higher Profile

Times Staff Writer

It was anything but the intimate family celebration observed by most Jews at Hanukkah. There on the steps outside the west portico of the state Capitol stood Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a group of rabbis in wide-brimmed black hats beneath a giant menorah.

To hear the leaders of the Chabad Lubavitch movement tell it, the Hanukkah observance it sponsored last year in Sacramento was the most widely televised Hanukkah celebration in history.

“It will be even much bigger this year,” said Rabbi Shlomo Boruch Cunin, executive director of the West Coast Chabad Lubavitch, headquartered in Los Angeles.


Hanukkah begins Tuesday at sunset and ends at nightfall Dec. 15.

In a multicultural state where ethnic and religious diversity has given rise to the kosher burrito and the singing of “Feliz Navidad” by Mexican entertainers at a bar mitzvah party, it may seem unexceptional that Hanukkah menorahs have taken their place alongside Christmas trees in the public square.

But as some Christian leaders often express concern about the commercialization and secularization of Christmas, some Jews have expressed a desire that Hanukkah remain a family tradition at home. They concede that American Jews face a lot of pressure from the overwhelming Christmas flavor in December, but some still have mixed feelings about public events for Hanukkah.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a member of the liberal Reform movement, said he didn’t want to disparage the efforts of Chabad, a Hasidic movement known for its outreach efforts, to have large public Hanukkah observances. But he said that Chabad “has decided in order to draw attention to itself to make this particular holiday and some others a more public spectacle than most Jews would participate in.”

Rabbi Elazar Muskin, who leads Young Israel of Century City, an Orthodox synagogue, mildly complained that a nearby bank on Pico Boulevard put a menorah on display last year and lighted its candles daily.

“Menorahs belong in the home. They’re not traditionally lighted in the marketplace,” Muskin said.

For many Jews, public displays of Hanukkah menorahs blur the separation between church and state, or worse, make the menorah into a secular symbol. The American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress argued in court against displays of menorahs on public property.


But in 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 vote that local governments may not support displays that appear designed to promote certain faiths but may sponsor religious symbols as part of broad holiday celebrations. The court struck down the display of a creche at a Pittsburgh courthouse because it stood alone under a banner that said, “Glory to God in the Highest.” But the court upheld the menorah display next to a Christmas tree, saying that “both Christmas and Hanukkah are part of the same winter holiday season, which has attained a secular status in society.”

“We used to fight it on a regular basis,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, Los Angeles chapter director of the American Jewish Committee. But he said that ended after the court decision.

Now, he said, the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee holds a Hanukkah celebration every year and invites consuls general from various governments and leaders of non-Jewish organizations. “But it’s in a private home. It’s not on public property. That’s the difference for us,” Greenebaum said.

Still, Cunin, 64, who brought the Brooklyn-based Chabad movement to Los Angeles in the 1960s, was irrepressible earlier this week. “You know what they say. To start, they laugh at you. After they laugh at you, they fight you. After they fight you, they join you,” Cunin said.

The eight-day Hanukkah observance, sometimes called the Festival of Lights, commemorates the victory of a Jewish revolt in the 2nd century B.C. against the Syrian Greeks who then controlled the region.

The revolt, led by a group of zealous Jews known as the Maccabees, led to the reestablishment of Jewish control over Jerusalem and the purification of the Temple, which the Greeks had desecrated.


According to tradition, when Judah, who led the Maccabees to victory, sought to re-light the Temple’s lamps, there was enough pure olive oil for only one day. Yet through a miracle, the lamps burned eight days. To commemorate that, Jews light candles for eight days.

The Chabad Lubavitch movement makes no effort to deny that Hanukkah has traditionally been celebrated privately. It touts its public Hanukkah observances and community Passover seders in many U.S. cities as having brought about a “fundamental change” in how Jewish holidays are observed.

This year, Chabad members will join Mayor James K. Hahn in lighting a menorah at Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday and will be with the governor for a ceremony Thursday at the state Capitol. Chabad also distributes gifts to hospitalized children during Hanukkah.

Such efforts, the group said, have brought unaffiliated Jews into religious life and, perhaps not incidentally, allowed the organization to claim that it is the fastest-growing Jewish movement in the world.

But Leder and others said the movement remains a decided minority, particularly in the United States. Moreover, public observances of Jewish holidays remain important mostly to those in the Chabad movement, according to Rabbi David Ellenson, author of “After Emancipation,” a book on Jewish religious responses to modernity.

“Chabad has taken the lead,” said Ellenson, who is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform seminary. “It’s a more significant issue for them than many other Jews. I wouldn’t exaggerate the significance.”


Nonetheless, Cunin delights in recounting how the number of public Hanukkah observances has grown since the Chabad House opened near UCLA around 1968. He said Jewish students wondered why, amid all the signs of Christmas, there was no evidence of Hanukkah.

So Chabad hired an old Russian tinsmith, who usually fashioned rain gutters, and built an 11-foot menorah.

“At the very beginning everybody laughed,” Cunin said. “It was a tin menorah. We enjoyed it. The kids enjoyed it. We danced around it. We kept it lit with some concoction of cotton wicks and tiki torches.... It was really something very beautiful.”