The Menorah

Photograph Source: Sakeeb Sabakka – CC BY 2.0

My family received a menorah, a gift in memory of a family member. The menorah is a beautiful work of art. The five figures, and an infant carried by the last ceramic figure on the menorah, stand in front of a depiction of the Statue of Liberty. The six immigrants are placed on a wharf in front of the statue with a trunk at the front of their line. A sign reads: “IMMIGRATION” in front of the trunk. The first figure is that of a man wearing a yamaka, or a brimless cap, worn by religious Jews. Behind that figure is a woman with a hand resting on the shoulder of the man. The last figure wears a scarf over her head and cradles the infant in her arms and is preceded by a boy sitting on luggage. A girl stands behind the first man and the second woman in the group of immigrants. They wear the clothes generally associated with ordinary people from Eastern Europe.

These six figures, depicted on the menorah, symbolically represent  some of  the 30 million people who emigrated to the US at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. The menorah symbolizes the religious celebration of Jews who returned to the destroyed temple in ancient Jerusalem and found a candelabra whose oil was supposed to burn for a short time, perhaps one day, but burned for eight days, hence the eight candle holders of the menorah. The holiday meant to celebrate this event is Chanukah and holds meanings of persecution and renewal for Jews. It is a festive and beautiful holiday during which gifts are exchanged each night. A head, or lead candle, the ninth, stands above the rest and is called the shamas and is used each night to light the other eight candles.

I thought the figure representing the Statue of Liberty was a little silly, smiling, but then it occurred to me that the artist who created this piece may have wanted to depict the welcoming nature of the times reflected in the words on the statue from Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” (1883) that reads: “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me… I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Now, even though I hesitate to use the cliché weaponize, immigration has been weaponized against the “tempest-tost” who now enter the US. This writing is not about those who emigrate, but hostility toward today’s immigrants could fill a large library or multiple stadiums. The hate that is engendered by the heirs of the “tempest-tost” is quite remarkable.

Those figures on the newly acquired gift of the menorah would be waiting on Ellis Island as millions of others did during that historical epic to escape a host of ills in other lands. For the Jews depicted on the menorah, unless they were sponsored by an established relative, places like the Lower East Side of Manhattan waited and those streets were not paved with mythical gold, but they would not be the subject of a mass of violent assaults and pogroms that met them in the places they had inhabited, and within a decade for some, the Holocaust.

With the assault on Gaza following the attack of October 7, 2023, about 30,000 Palestinians have died and the landscape has been turned to a wasteland over large swaths of land. It is much like the Nakba of 75 years ago involving the removal of about 700,000 people, but with much more military violence aided by technology.

Growing up in a small tight-knit Jewish community in suburban Rhode Island, the Nakba was unknown to us and probably unknowable. The community was populated by first-generation Jews and their families and meanness and vengeance were not predominant values. In fact, the founding of Israel in 1948 was met with universal joy.

Now, far away in time and place from those days, critics of what the UN’s International Court of Justice calls a genocide have been attacked by the far right in Israel and here in the US, many being religious fundamentalists in both cases, and we, the critics, are labelled self-hating Jews and antisemites. The latter is a curious and an obvious spurious defense of the mass murder of innocent people.

Decades of occupation and embargo by Israel and the near-takeover by Israeli settlers in the West Bank have made a mockery of anything resembling democracy. Dehumanization of the Palestinian people from all of these actions is reprehensible!

Israel became the dependable ally of the US in the Middle East in a geographical area important for the projection of power, oil, and the flashpoint of cultures, nations, and religions. Major wars are now being fought in Syria, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip, some of these proxy wars, and these wars are alarming in the extreme. That the US, its allies, and the mass media are supporters and cheerleaders for these wars in the same way that Ukraine became entwined with global realpolitik only a few, short decades after the so-called “end of history.”

Jews, both secular and religious, are slandered and libeled in the name of mass murder and Zionism when they act to repair the world through action, or hold fast to the principle of not doing to the other(s) that which a person or group does not want done to himself/herself or to a group.

Facing and responding to antisemitism and other forms of racist hate here in the US and around the world is more appropriate than attacking progressive/left Jews here in the US.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).