The Christ­mas Meno­rahs: How a Town Fought Hate

  • Review
By – March 4, 2024

The orig­i­nal ver­sion of The Christ­mas Meno­rahs appeared thir­ty years ago, inspired by a series of efforts to com­bat hatred in Billings, Mon­tana. When a spate of attacks on Jews, Black peo­ple, and oth­ers threat­ened their com­mu­ni­ty, res­i­dents of Billings were deter­mined to express their sol­i­dar­i­ty and take action. In this new edi­tion of the book, which is sad­ly still rel­e­vant, Jan­ice Cohn and Bill Farnsworth relate how one Jew­ish fam­i­ly refus­es to be intim­i­dat­ed by big­otry — and, in the process, the fam­i­ly learns that their empa­thet­ic and coura­geous neigh­bors will defend the val­ues of their town.

The book’s set­ting is idyl­lic. Pic­tures in soft pas­tels and earth col­ors show a snowy win­ter enlivened by hol­i­day lights. The inte­ri­ors of homes are rem­i­nis­cent of clas­sic Amer­i­can illus­tra­tions and time­less val­ues. Yet this tran­quil­i­ty is shat­tered when unnamed anti­semites and racists deface homes and hous­es of wor­ship, as if deter­mined to chal­lenge the town’s self-image of warmth and accep­tance. When young Isaac Schnitzer’s home­work ses­sion is inter­rupt­ed by vio­lence, his first response is fear: he removes the meno­rahs proud­ly dis­played in his home. His par­ents remind him that sur­ren­der­ing to bul­lies is demean­ing and worth­less, a mes­sage that the rest of the book reaf­firms through pre­sent­ing effec­tive alter­na­tives. Law enforce­ment is part of the solu­tion, but Chief of Police Inman prefers com­mu­ni­ty out­reach to reac­tive respons­es. His plan to enlist com­mu­ni­ty sup­port is met with enthu­si­asm, and soon Chris­t­ian homes and church­es are adding meno­rahs and state­ments of resis­tance to their own environments.

This course of action is far from spon­ta­neous. Cohn describes how stu­dents, teach­ers, cler­gy, and activists raise con­scious­ness through dis­cus­sion and learn­ing. Isaac explains the hol­i­day of Chanukah to his class­mates, who then con­nect the courage of the Mac­cabees to exam­ples from their own lives. Stand­ing up for oth­ers is not auto­mat­ic; it requires lis­ten­ing and mutu­al understanding.

One par­tic­i­pant in a town meet­ing rais­es the exam­ple of Den­mark dur­ing World War II. Unlike oth­er coun­tries where col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Nazis was per­va­sive, the Danes chose to stand up for their Jew­ish cit­i­zens. Although some of the his­tor­i­cal details includ­ed are roman­ti­cized, the core facts are true. If peo­ple in even one occu­pied nation chose a dif­fer­ent path, the notion that the Holo­caust was inevitable must be ques­tioned. While the res­i­dents of Billings nev­er con­front ter­ror on that scale, they demon­strate that per­son­al and com­mu­nal respon­si­bil­i­ty can coun­ter­act threats to freedom.

Exten­sive addi­tion­al mate­ri­als in this thir­ti­eth-anniver­sary edi­tion include an essay by the Billings Gazette edi­tor and anoth­er by a Jew­ish sur­vivor from Den­mark. The hol­i­day sea­son is not the only time to share this book with chil­dren — its com­pelling mes­sage of inclu­sive­ness and con­cert­ed action is need­ed all through­out the year.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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