Last week was banner chapel at my son's school. Each fourth-grade boy created a felt banner that celebrated his faith or values. The boys carried their banners into the school chapel to be displayed during a special service. As the boys held their creations high, the school chaplain talked about how symbols communicated our beliefs and ideas.
Looking around the room, I saw faith-specific signs as well as ones that conveyed universal messages shared by all religions. True to his interfaith heritage, our son chose Peace on Earth as his theme and included the signs of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism on his banner. My husband and I thought our son represented much of what we teach at home–a focus on shared values, acceptance and coexistence of different faiths, and our responsibility to make the world a better place.
Banner chapel, with its discussion of emblems, comes at an appropriate time of year given that symbols surround us. Christians share their Christmas spirit inside and outside their homes. Holiday lights brighten neighborhoods. Wreaths hang on front doors. Santa and his reindeers and elves greet visitors on front lawns and in malls. Creches and Jesus-is-the-reason-for-the-season displays remind passers-by of the holiday’s religious purpose. The signs of the season are virtually impossible to escape.
While those who celebrate Christmas rejoice in the public celebration of their faith, Jews often choose to celebrate their heritage privately. What is interesting about this choice is that Jews are encouraged to observe Hanukkah openly by placing menorahs in a window or lighting the candles in a doorway facing the street. Doing this publicizes the miracle of Hanukkah, sends a message of strength to enemies and shows Jewish pride.
But many Jews prefer to hang holiday decorations and light the Hanukkah lights inside their homes where they are visible only to themselves and their guests. This private celebration is a holdover from times of religious persecution. Yet, recent acts of anti-Semitism and religious intolerance in Europe and the United States make some Jewish and Jewish-interfaith families feel that boldly communicating their faith to their neighbors is still not a good idea.
But the latest incidences have had the opposite effect on me. This year, for the first time ever, I am communicating my family's Jewishness outwardly. I have an electric menorah in a window facing the street so it is visible to all who drive into the cul-de-sac or down the main road in the neighborhood. A dreidel is hanging on the front door.
I am proud of these symbols and what they say about my family's beliefs, heritage, and values. I am able to display them proudly because of the Maccabees victory. This Hanukkah, I'm going to let my Jewishness shine.