Bringing My Judaism Into the Light
The year I turned 40, we left our New York City life behind us, trading it in for the picturesque Midwestern suburb where my husband grew up. We moved from a building on the Lower East Side, complete with a Shabbos elevator, to a city in the news, just days before we arrived, for its antisemitic sidewalk graffiti. A city in which a neighbor said, “Oh, I’m going to like you,” when he saw us hanging our American flag before we even unpacked our moving boxes.
It speaks volumes that the same neighbor has never commented on our holiday decorations. Every Hanukkah since we arrived, the centerpiece perches on our front yard, greeting the nights with a joyful exuberance that matches the holiday: an eight-foot-wide, five-foot-tall flamingo menorah.
My artist-husband built the menorah as a gift that honors both my father and my unconventional Jewish upbringing. Growing up, I lived in what seemed like the only non-Jewish pocket of South Florida. Throughout December, our block was lit up like Luna Park, but our house was always dark. Mom wouldn’t even put the menorah in the window. She joked about burning the drapes, but I suspect her real fear was burning crosses.
I begged my father for some kind of holiday decoration, and he finally acquiesced, building a six-foot menorah from wood and electrical tape and whatever parts and pieces he had lying around. When we moved to a slightly more Jewish area, the menorah grew in size and scope. While I sang “Away in a Manager” at my elementary school winter assembly, and Mom volunteered in my classroom to explain the holiday with latkes and Hanukkah gelt, Dad built a fully electric, nine-foot menorah out of copper, with orange bulbs for the flames. Behind it, a dreidel spun on the roof. White lights decked out the side of the house—from the roof to the lawn— in the shape of a dreidel turned to gimel, so everyone could win. In case there was any doubt that ours was a Jewish home, Dad added a “Happy Hanukkah” sign in dancing lights and a Star of David so big it could be seen from the air. I remember the television helicopters flying low to capture our house in all its glory for the nightly news.
As a child, my parents protected me from the threat just outside our door. It wasn’t until our last Hanukkah together that Dad told me the truth: Our house was egged and our lights were stolen every single year. Men would drive by slowly and circle the block again and again, their pickup trucks flying Confederate flags, their mouths shouting obscenities at the Jews who dared to be seen.
I wasn’t afraid, exactly, to be visible, but my Judaism lived in the background. Sure, once a year we’d be JEWISH for eight miraculous nights, but we were more culturally than religiously Jewish. Temple life ended with my bat mitzvah; I was an adult before I rediscovered the joy of Shabbat services. Judaism was Mom’s brisket on Rosh Hashanah, YouTube videos from the Maccabeats, family-led Tashlich. It was a life built on the values of tikkun olam, the deep understanding that I am connected to a greater whole.
With global antisemitism on the rise, I’m experimenting with what my Judaism could look like at the forefront, where it can be seen by all, just like my flamingo menorah. These days, I often wear a small mezuzah around my neck, found in my father’s nightstand after he died. One side is etched with a Jewish star and the Hebrew acronym stating God’s protection, the promise to keep the wearer out of harm’s way. When I wear the necklace with the star side facing out, standing in the grocery store just one town over, it feels like people are looking for my horns, a typical experience my mother described from her youth. It feels so different from riding the subway in Manhattan in the days after my parents’ deaths, the torn black shiva ribbon pinned near my heart, my pregnant belly swelling below it, strangers stopping me to offer their blessings and condolences. That was the most quietly visible I’ve ever felt, connected to the Jewish faith and a people that goes back 5,000 years, a community trying to repair the world, each doing our part to return the light to its vessel.
That light warmed me and helped me feel brave as I looked at my husband’s creation for the first time. A flamingo menorah is a statement piece, for sure. He included flamingos because he knows how much I miss the family and sunshine I had in Florida, how I struggle during the interminable darkness of these Midwestern winters. The size was a nod to my father—go big or go home.
I know, like my parents did, that placing this giant menorah on our lawn makes us a target. But being able to put myself out there is the bigger gift my dad gave me when he first made me a menorah. While he was a man who rarely went to synagogue, he was also one who always took off work for the High Holidays, “so people can see.” “See what?” I questioned. “See us,” he would reply. Dad had the ability to look in the mirror and say, “I am” and to ask for that recognition in others. That’s a skill I’m attempting to teach myself and my children.
I’ve encountered hate in its many shades, whether it’s homophobic legislatures, systemic racism, antisemitic neighbors, or synagogues where my non-Jewish menorah-making husband would be made to feel invisible or greeted with an asterisk, if welcomed at all. But I am who I am. I am where I’m from. I am who I’m with and what I believe. I am myself, a Florida-born Midwestern Jewish woman writer who wants to be seen, who wants to use her voice to right the wrongs of intolerance.
And this year, I will celebrate my joy with our community, hosting an outdoor Hanukkah party around our flamingo menorah, in the hope that I can bring a little bit of light to my corner of the world.