What’s a Christmas menorah?

What’s a Christmas menorah?

Children’s book about Billings, hatred, and hope in 1993 is relevant once again

The art in “The Christmas Menorahs” is by Bill Farnsworth.
The art in “The Christmas Menorahs” is by Bill Farnsworth.

We’re told that “the past is a different country,” and of course that’s true.

But how far back in the past do we have to go?

Is, say, 1993 so very long ago as to be unrecognizable to us now?

And is Billings, Montana, so far away from northern New Jersey that it too is a different country?

If things haven’t changed too much — if we haven’t become so polarized, if hate hasn’t so taken us over — and if all of the United States are part of the same country — then maybe we can take hope from “The Christmas Menorahs.”

The nonfiction children’s book, written by Dr. Janice Cohen of Montclair, is being reissued to mark its 30th anniversary, and because the need for its message has not gone away; if anything, it’s more necessary today than ever.

Is that a naïve hope? The reader can decide.

The book is about a surge in antisemitism in Billings in the early 1990s, and it was prompted both by that and by Dr. Cohen’s own brush with antisemitism.

She’s a psychotherapist, and back then she was on staff in the psychiatry department at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark. She was putting together a conference on the psychology of hate when she was confronted with it. There had been a wildly antisemitic speaker — this many years later, Dr. Cohen prefers not to give too many specifics — and the conflict between the expressed hatred and the right to free speech that allows such expressions of hatred became hard to endure.

The conference, meant to counter hate, fell apart because of hate. “I was feeling dejected,” Dr. Cohen said. “Helpless. I was beside myself.” And then she saw a story in the New York Times about how Billings had fought back against antisemitism.

“It was centered on the chief of police, Wayne Inman, who had a pivotal role in it,” she said.

Dr. Cohen was so pushed by antisemitism and pulled by the story that she decided to try to interview Mr. Inman, and then write about it. She’d already written a few nonfiction children’s books, so it seemed natural.

Still, what happened next seemed to her then — and still seems to her now — as if it were bashert. Preordained. In a good way.

“I thought I’d just call up the Billing police station and ask to speak to Chief Inman,” Dr. Cohen said. “As it turned out, quite a number of people had had the same idea. The switchboard had been jammed for at least an hour.

“But for reasons that no one understood, least of all me, my call went through.

“I spoke with Wayne, who put me in touch with Tammie Schnitzer, and she agreed that she liked the idea of someone writing a book for children about what happened.

“So I was invited to go to Billings. And I went. I interviewed quite a number of people there.”

Dr. Cohen began her book, which not only is based on a real event but is genuine reporting, translated into child-friendly language, with middle-schooler Isaac Schnitzer sitting in his house, doing his math homework, when he and his babysitter, Mrs. Miller, hear loud noises, including the unmistakable sounds of breaking glass.

It’s the middle of Chanukah, nearly Christmas, and the windows are full of bright menorahs. Isaac’s room, though, is dark and cold. The window’s been broken; someone has thrown a rock through it. The rock landed on his bed. Had he been lying in that bed, Isaac most likely would have been seriously hurt.

Skinheads, right-wing white separatists with unfortunate haircuts, had come to the town months earlier, trying to impose their hateful ethos on it.

The Schnitzers decided not to be quiet about what had happened to them, and the town responded.

They began by calling the police that night. The police chief, Mr. Inman, came over. “He was — he is — an amazing man,” Dr. Cohen said. “He had grown up in Billings, and had just come back to town from Portland, Oregon, where he’d been assistant chief of police.

“There was a group of skinheads and neo-Nazis in town, who had announced that they would kill anyone who they called ‘mud people.’ Wayne tried to get the town to take it seriously, but they said they didn’t want to give those groups any publicity.

“So nobody would listen to him. They said, ‘This isn’t Portland. Nothing like what they’re talking about ever happens here.’

“One night, a Nigerian exchange student was walking home from the university in twilight, and a group of skinheads and neo-Nazis surrounded him. Just because of his color, they beat him to death. And then the town took action.

“It was horrible for Wayne, who jumped at the chance to come home to Billings, where nothing like that ever happened. All that anyone ever did was hunting and fishing. Nothing like what happened at Portland could happen in Billings.”

And then it started to happen. “This time, Wayne knew that he had to take it seriously.

“Margie MacDonald, who was then the director of the Montana Association of Churches” — she’s now a retired longtime state politician — “and everyone else agreed that action needed to be taken.

“The skinheads would go to the African American Methodist Episcopal Church in town — there were maybe 50 Black families in town — and perfectly legally they’d just sit in the pews and glare at the congregation there. But what happened in Billings was that other churches got their congregants to go and sit with them and pray with them, so they were not alone.”

There was a mixed-race couple in Billings whose house was defaced by hate messages painted all over it, on all sides, Dr. Cohen continued. “The Billings painters union agreed to repaint the entire house. Dozens of painters worked on it.” And the Jewish community was threatened as well, and its small cemetery was desecrated.

Then it was Chanukah. The Schnitzers were not the first Jewish family to be attacked but they were the first to respond publicly. “Tammie Schnitzer had married Brian and converted, but she had been raised a Lutheran, and her family had been in Billings for generations, so she knew what it was like to grow up in Billings.

This is one of Bill Farnsworth’s illustrations for Janice Cohen’s book.

“The fact that this was happening to her Jewish children outraged her, so she went public.

“And then Margie MacDonald remembered the apocryphal story from Denmark about how the king wore a yellow star during the Holocaust. She had read that Jewish families had been told to take down their menorahs and Chanukah decorations, because it was too dangerous to display them, and she was outraged. She read about how they refused. ‘How would you feel about being forced to take down your Christmas tree because it’s too dangerous to show that you’re Christian?’” she asked rhetorically.

“At that time, Billings had about 80,000 residents, and about 50 Jewish families, so a lot of people in town had never met a Jew before,” Dr. Cohen said.

But Ms. MacDonald “read about what had happened in the Billings Gazette, which had been wonderful,” Dr. Cohen continued. “They said no, the Jews shouldn’t have to do that.”

The Rev. Keith Tourney, the minister of the local First Congregational Church, moving in solidarity with the Jewish community and in the spirit of King Christian’s mythic yellow-star-wearing, mimeographed a picture of a menorah. (Yes, mimeographed, because sometimes for real the past is another country.) The church leaders “decided to distribute them, and asked small stores if they’d display a pile of them,” Dr. Cohen said. “They asked people to put them up in their homes. They had no idea how the community would respond, but they were inundated by local merchants asking for more of them.

“The Gazette printed an incredible picture, with some of the most eloquent wording that I have ever read about what this country is supposed to stand for, that is so relevant for today,” Dr. Cohen continued. “It brought out the best in people.” It asked readers to cut out the picture of the menorah and put it in their front windows. Large numbers of people did so.

“Margie MacDonald tells the true story of a group of nuns who were living on the outskirts of town. They were pretty isolated, and therefore they were pretty vulnerable. They were discussing whether they should put up the photo of the menorah from the Gazette. The mother superior said, ‘If we put the picture of the menorah up in the window, I won’t sleep a wink.

“‘But if we don’t put it up, I don’t know if I ever will sleep again.’”

Churches put up the menorah pictures and they were hit too. “Margie said that the Billings Gazette reported that whenever an incident like that happened, they received hundreds of dollars anonymously, in cash, to repair it. They never found out who the anonymous donor was. There’d always be an envelope with cash, more than enough cash to fix it.”

Dr. Cohen told one more story. “Brian Schnitzer said that after episodes of vandalism at the synagogue and Jewish homes, their rabbi, who was a student, Isaac, and a few others, including him, went out for breakfast. “‘The waitress, who was a Native American, asked us if we were associated with the synagogue,’” she said, quoting Mr. Schnitzer. “‘She was very nice, very supportive. And at the end, instead of giving us our check, she said not to worry about it. Someone in the restaurant picked it up.’

“And then the rabbi said, ‘This is an amazing community. Where I come from, we might be harassed on the street. Here, they buy you breakfast.’”

Eventually the antisemitic incidents stopped and the skinheads and neo-Nazis slinked out of town. No one was arrested or tried for any of the vandalism. Dr. Cohen thinks that was good. “If they’d been able to arrest someone immediately, the town wouldn’t have had the chance to respond as it did.”

Dr. Cohen talked to some of the families who decided to hang menorahs in their windows. “There were discussions in many homes,” she said; she knew about them from the meetings she had while she was in Billings researching her book. Teresa Hanley was a student in Isaac’s school. “Her brother came up to me after a discussion and told me what his family had done,” Dr. Cohen said. “They talked about it. They knew it was dangerous, but his father asked us what we’d want if it had been us. Wouldn’t we want people to stand up for us?

“And his mother, Marilyn, said, ‘I never liked our living room windows anyway.’

“It’s amazing what these kids learned from their parents’ example. And from their teachers, their ministers, their better angels. And I’m sure that they’ve not forgotten about it, and instead they’ve taught their own children about it.”

The story was so powerful that PBS made a documentary about it called “Not in Our Town.” “That started a movement, the Not in Our Town movement, and the filmmaker subsequently did a number of documentaries about it,” Dr. Cohen said.

Legal issues that arose when her original publisher was acquired by another company kept “The Christmas Menorahs” out of print for a long time. But “I think that this story is needed now more than ever, because it gives hope and inspiration,” Dr. Cohen said.

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