I live in a neighborhood known for its Christmas displays. No one is more surprised about this than I am. And, to my even greater surprise, I have found living here to be a moving experience.
The one thing I have known for certain my entire life is that I am Jewish. I grew up in a traditional Jewish home, attended Jewish schools and summer camps. My family kept kosher and celebrated all of the Jewish holidays. I lived for nearly 10 years in Jerusalem, where I became fluent in Hebrew and loved living in a place whose rhythms revolved around Jewish rituals and traditions. My core values — kindness to others, social justice, family, community — are those I learned from Judaism. I have spent much of my professional life working for Jewish organizations. Judaism is my religion, ethnicity, culture, history and community.
There is a great distance, geographically and spiritually, between Jerusalem and Winterhaven. For those who haven’t been here, let me describe what happens each December during the neighborhood “Festival of Lights.” All of the residents put up elaborate, creative displays in their front yards. There are lights on the houses, trees, roofs, fire hydrants and mailboxes. There are cardboard cutouts painted to look like winter wonderlands or favorite children’s characters. There are religious displays and humorous ones that show Santa on vacation in exotic locales. All of the displays are envisioned, constructed and paid for by the residents. People spend months preparing. And then, for two weeks each December, our streets are closed to cars, and thousands of Tucson residents walk through the neighborhood or ride through in horse-drawn carriages. Entry is free, but visitors are asked to bring food or cash for the Community Food Bank.
Each night, as the sky grows dark and the lights come on, our normal suburban neighborhood turns into a magical winter wonderland (minus the snow). It is, for the most part, a joyous, friendly time. And it is also a time that reminds me that I do not fully belong here, that this festival is all about a holiday I do not celebrate.
Living here is not what I envisioned when I moved back to the United States 12 years ago. But when my son was born five years ago, we needed a bigger house and this one was perfect, on a quiet, family-friendly street where there were other kids to play with. There were trees and grass (rare and controversial in this water-starved desert), and it reminded me of my childhood in New England.
Unlike others in the neighborhood, we moved here despite the festival, not because of it. We decided we would somehow put up with Christmas. I promised myself I would never put up a Chanukah display. Chanukah is a minor holiday, of little religious importance, and I did not want to give in to the pressure to compete.
Our first year here, we watched quietly as the neighborhood around us transformed. We were amazed at the sense of community that developed through the preparation process. We discovered that behind the seeming homogeneity of the Christmas lights, our neighbors are a diverse group. They are Jews, Catholics, and Mormons, Christians and secularists, gay and straight, immigrants and local-born, politically conservative and liberal. When we realized that our house would stick out more without lights, my husband, David, put up some chili pepper lights. No one noticed our house, and we liked it that way. The second year, we put up a few lights and left the country to visit friends and family in Europe and Israel. I thought I had found the perfect solution.
Our third year here, Chanukah coincided with the neighborhood festival. Inspired by what he had seen the previous years, my husband decided he wanted to build something too, and he began making plans for Tucson’s largest dreidel. He was intrigued most by the engineering challenge. With mixed emotions, I agreed, and he spent two months planning, designing, and experimenting with PVC pipe and paint.
And so now, each December, my front yard is home to a spinning 10-foot tall dreidel that is lit from within. Our house is decorated in blue and white lights, and a mixture of Chanukah songs and Israeli pop music plays through our outdoor speakers. Somehow, it is both amazingly tacky and incredibly elegant. Everyone notices our house now, and we are fine with that.
My hesitation that first year was partly religious — I did not want tens of thousands of people to see our display and mistakenly think that Chanukah was simply another form of Christmas. But I was also afraid. I did not know how our neighbors would react to a Jewish display in the midst of their Christmas festival. I worried about the thousands of strangers who would now know that Jews lived in this house. I worried that we might be targeted by bigots and bullies. While these fears might seem irrational to some, to me they were very real. I know all too well where religious intolerance can lead. Much of my extended family was killed in the Holocaust. My grandparents were spared only because they had left for America before the war. During my years in Israel, I lived through three wars and two years of suicide bombings. A former colleague, a neighbor, and several friends-of-friends were killed. Many others, like me, while physically unharmed, carry the psychic scars deep inside. Placing a giant Jewish symbol in my front yard was not something I could do lightly.
But then, something unexpected happened. In the weeks leading up to the festival, our neighbors slowly realized what we were building in our yard. The reaction was unanimous — they were excited by what we were doing, proud that we would show the city that our neighborhood was more diverse than anyone thought. Neighbors would stop by to ask questions about our traditions or to offer advice on how to improve the dreidel aesthetically and mechanically. The second year, a 3-foot tall penguin cutout from a neighbor’s South Pole display “wandered” into our yard, and we placed a kippah on his head. Last year, Jewish friends moved into the neighborhood. Following our lead, they built a 10-foot tall menorah in their yard, accompanied by another penguin in a kippah. Each night of Chanukah, we gathered in their yard to light the candles. A friend of theirs who grew up in Eastern Europe was moved to tears by the fact that we could so publicly and proudly display our Judaism.
Visitors to the Winterhaven festival seem to love the dreidel and the Hebrew sign in our yard reading Hag sameach (happy holiday). We hear parents and children discussing the meaning of the dreidel and of Chanukah, aware — possibly for the first time — that there are people in Tucson who do not celebrate Christmas. College students walk by and start singing “I had a little dreidel,” teaching the words to their friends and disrupting the choruses of “Jingle Bells” from people riding the wagons. We have been told by people walking by that our display triggers memories of the Judaism of their childhoods or of their grandparents, awakening a Jewish identity deep inside that they had forgotten. Jewish friends tell us that they now feel welcome in Winterhaven, knowing that there is something here that their children can feel proud of. If anyone has ever had trouble with our dreidel, we have never heard about it.
I still struggle with living in the midst of a Christmas festival each December, raising a Jewish child surrounded by so many Christmas lights and Santas. As a toddler, my son thought the whole festival was about Chanukah. As he gets older, he is developing a deeper understanding of the complexities, coming to see — as I have — that it is about more than Chanukah or Christmas. It is a celebration of community, of neighbors who willingly apply their creativity, time and money to provide a free, family-friendly, magical wonderland for their city. And it is a celebration of giving, the largest single fund- and food-raiser for the Community Food Bank.
I have come to believe that what we are doing is in keeping with the spirit of Chanukah. We are celebrating our Jewish identities in a non-Jewish world. We are following the tradition of putting the menorah in the window, in order to share the light of the Chanukah miracle, just on a much larger scale.
Sometimes a giant dreidel at a Christmas festival is more than it appears to be. For me, and I think for my neighbors too, it has become a sign of community and coexistence. There may not be peace in the Middle East in my lifetime. There is little I can do about the battles raging in our country over politics and immigration, marriage and the economy. But in our little corner of Tucson, people of different religions, ethnicities and political beliefs are working together to create something beautiful and joyous. And, in some small way, that gives me hope.