I only came across The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate recently but this true story has lost none of its power or, sadly, its relevance since 1993, when the events it tells about took place in the town of Billings in Montana, US. Written by Janice Cohn, who spoke to many of the people involved first-hand, and beautifully illustrated by Bill Farnsworth, The Christmas Menorahs was published two years later (by Albert Whitman). It’s an inspiring book to share with older children (it’s aimed at 9-12 year olds) and is bound to provoke discussion.
It was the third night of Hannukkah and young Isaac Schnitzer was doing his homework when there was a loud crash in his bedroom: someone had thrown a rock through the window at the menorah that had been shining out into the darkness.
Isaac was stunned when he found out that rock had been thrown because he was Jewish, one incident in a spate of racist and anti-semitic attacks in the town. At this point, this crime could simply have become another statistic, with Isaac and his family picking up the pieces and carrying on. This did indeed happen: Isaac’s parents talked to him about not allowing bullies to stop them celebrating their holiday and that is what they resolved to do. However, this event was also the catalyst for a community-wide reaction to the intolerance. A town meeting was held and a woman called Margaret MacDonald, inspired by the King of Denmark and others wearing the yellow star of David during the second world war so that the Nazis would not be able to distinguish who was Jewish quite so easily, suggested that everyone put a menorah in their window.
At school, Isaac explained the meaning of Hannukah and the menorah to his classmates. The story follows one of them, Theresa, home and narrates the discussions she had with her family, and the huge picture of the menorah they put in their window with a greeting to Isaac and his family, along with a Jewish star and a Christian cross. Indeed, more and more menorahs appeared in windows as the days went by; and in the town of Billings, the acts of hatred gradually came to stop.
This is a great book for raising issues with children not just of tolerance but of what can be achieved when people stand together against bullies and bigots. It takes time and it takes courage but as the people of Billings said, ridding their town of these acts of hatred “was a gift they had given themselves. And [...] it was their best holiday gift, ever.” The events in Billings have inspired many people over the years – and author Janice Cohn has also written a play based on the story, Paper Candles; as well as this article. For further exploration of kidlit resources promoting respect for religious diversity, head on over to our current issue of PaperTigers, where you will also find these reading lists and links to other articles.