The day after Thanksgiving was balmy and beautiful this year. We drove through the neighborhood watching inverted metal V’s emerge from garages as people began prepping for Christmas decorations. That night, on the return drive home, my children began counting all of the homes with lights. Then came the inevitable question, “Why don’t we have lights?” And the inevitable answer, “Because we’re Jewish.” I assured my daughters that I’d fetch dreidles and other Chanukah decorations from the basement so we decorate the next day. But this did not quench their thirst for a prominent decoration that declared to the world yes, you’re not mistaken, it’s Chanukah.
My husband and I grew up in very Jewish neighborhoods in Long Island and Baltimore, where the colored light bulbs graced a third to maybe one half of the homes along our streets. Sure our parents took us yearly on drives to see the lights in other neighborhoods, oohing and ahhing, pointing at impressive displays from the car windows. But not actually touching the windows, because that would leave fingerprints and my mother came from the “no one walks in the living room and I better not see any disturbance in the perfect lines left by the vacuum cleaner on the carpet” generation. My parents favored the clean-looking all-white light displays, eschewing the ones they felt looked oongapatched or goyesha. (Yes, goyesha. I know.) Someone was always sure to tell an instructional fable about the distant relative or friend who had a “Chanukah Bush”, but it was a tale told with a rueful laugh. We knew early on that this kind of behavior was an aberration. Jews didn’t put up lights. Heck, our mothers even treated the Menorahs like their children: they stood them on a plate covered with aluminum foil, and for good measure, placed them in the kitchen sink so the wax wouldn’t get onto the counter top or start a fire.
Once I became a parent and started to light the Chanukah candles with own my children, I started looking for decorations to make the house more festive. Stores certainly had more than when I was a child. In late November I noticed that even had Target put up a few shelves of items. It didn’t matter that there were several different spellings (Chanukah, Hanukkah, Hanukah). We’d made it to the big time. But truth be told, most of these items were melamine dishware or place mats or paper products. Nothing you could really slap on the side of your house so Chanukah Harry knew to pull Moisha, Hershel and Shlomo up to the curb to drop off gifts. Each year when we dismantled our decorations the tub of dreidles continued to grow, but not much else.
During one of my daughter’s recent play dates, the talk wound around to the topic of decorations. (We haven’t lived in a neighborhood with a lot of Jewish people in a while. In fact, years ago a neighbor knocked on my door to warn me that my doorbell was malfunctioning. She demonstrated and I had to tell her that our doorbell was in the same place as hers…. She’d been ringing our mezuzah.) One mother noticed that we hadn’t decorated yet. Yes, I admitted, I still had not gotten my Chanukah decorations from the basement. Another mother said, she, too, had to do the same with her Chanukah decorations. We had both just outed ourselves and gave each other a barely perceptible look to acknowledge this fact to one other. The other mother seemed perplexed when we both admitted that we only decorated inside our homes. Why, she wondered?
Early in U.S. History, synagogues were designed to look like other civic buildings. If you passed by the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the Shereath Israel Synagogue in New York or the Llloyd Street Synagogue in Baltimore, you might think you were strolling past a bank. They weren’t showy. This was by design. It was for protection. After all, the Jewish people have had a pretty rocky acceptance wherever they’ve called home in this world. This isn’t to say those synagogues aren’t lovely on the inside. Do a Google image search and you’ll be able to appreciate their beauty. They’re all impossibly neat. Clearly my mother had just been there when the pictures were snapped. Maybe that’s one reason we don’t decorate the outside of our homes. It’s a learned, unconscious, deeply embedded lesson we’ve absorbed since plodding in and out of Hebrew school each week.
I decided, why not just ask? So I polled Jewish friends and asked them directly. The answers ranged from the predictable: We’re Jews,to the practical: It’s easier! Why have all the mess – it’s one of the perks of being Jewish!, to the pragmatic: They don’t make anything that’s good quality that I can put outside without worrying. And that last remark is very true. No matter how many web sites you visit to find a gem of a decoration, the awful truth is, when you open the packages, the products are shoddily made. And, to be frank, they look goyisha. That huge blow up Coca-Cola-looking, yarmulke-wearing polar bear with the huge dreidle between its legs? Completely goyisha. And that “Sand Art” activity with the “Warning! Choking Hazard!” stamped on the front not only looks like it was created by Dan Aykroyd’s fictional Mainway, but let’s be honest, no Jewish mother would risk that mess. Are you kidding? Glue and sand?
It turns out that the truth is complicated. Just like my parents, who always taught me to be proud to be Jewish but also taught me to use a fake, less-Jewish sounding name when making restaurant reservations. So this Christmas season, when you’re gazing at the glow of beautiful lights from your car windows and you come across a dark house that makes the street look like it’s missing a tooth, and you wonder why there aren’t any lights, just remember: they might be Muslim.