If you thought that Temple Ahavat Achim’s lobster trap menorah – made out of 22 lobster traps stacked 14 feet high with buoys as candles – was cool, just wait until you hear the story of their Golda Meir menorah and the Hanukkah miracle that saved it.
It would be among the cruelest of ironies if a menorah were destroyed by a fire just three days after Hanukkah. But after an inferno destroyed the old Temple Ahavat Achim in December 2007, everyone assumed that it had – after all, not much else survived. Two days after the fire, the newly homeless congregation gathered for a makeshift Saturday service in the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church, commiserating, comforting, praying, and discussing how to move forward. Congregant Barry Pett happened to look in the direction of the altar, and to his great delight and shock, saw that Golda Meir’s handsome, sterling silver menorah still stood tall.
What metaphorical oil kept this beloved menorah going when everything else had burned out? One could argue that this menorah owes its life to interfaith tolerance and to Hanukkah itself. The menorah was brought to the church on Wednesday, Dec. 12 for an interfaith holiday service. Reverend Wendy Fitting was supposed to return it to the temple the following Friday, but an unexpected death in her congregation kept her busy. She called the rabbi and asked if she could return it the following Monday, and he agreed. Had she returned it on the scheduled Friday, the menorah might have been lost.
“Never mind how I felt in my heart – it’s a priceless object to the American Jewish community,” said Pett.
Indeed it is. Golda Meir presented it as a gift to Walworth Barbour, a former Gloucester resident who served as the United States’ ambassador to Israel from 1961 to 1973. Barbour was one of America’s longest-serving diplomats, and one of the few to serve under both Democratic and Republican administrations. He served during one of Israel’s most consequential eras, and earned the country’s trust and admiration as he helped guide its leaders through the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars. When he retired from his post in 1973, the Israeli Embassy hosted a large dinner in his honor, where Meir, Moshe Dayan, and other Israeli luminaries presented him with a menorah in gratitude. According to Pett, Meir visited Gloucester three times to spend time with him.
Barbour never learned to drive, and Pett offered to drive him on long car trips to New York, where he served on the board of Bank Leumi, an international Israeli bank. When Barbour passed away in 1982, Pett was surprised to learn that he had left him the menorah in his will, and Pett in turn decided to loan it to the temple, along with photos, programs, and signatures from the dinner in Barbour’s honor. “I didn’t want it to be stuck in my house, where no one would get to see it and share it and admire it, so I had it on loan to the temple,” he said.
Drive south from Temple Ahavat Achim and its LED-strewn lobster trap menorah (in case you were wondering, lobster isn’t kosher, but lobster traps are) into Rockport on a Hanukkah night, and you’ll see a menorah illuminating a public square. Keep driving through the North Shore and in town after town you’ll see six-foot-tall menorahs, even places you might not expect like Rockport, Topsfield or Wakefield. The menorahs that grace numerous locations around Greater Boston (a comprehensive list can be found at northshorechanukah.com) exist largely due to a push from Chabad of the North Shore to increase the visibility of the holiday and promote its universal themes.
“Chabadniks have a special love affair with the menorah going back to I want to say the 60s, when the first public menorah public lighting event happened in Berkeley, California,” said Rabbi Nechemiah Schusterman of Chabad of Peabody, where a nine-foot menorah sits permanently. “The Rebbe [Menachem Mendel Schneerson] of blessed memory loved it because of the whole message of Hanukkah and the menorah, light dispelling darkness – it was such an incredible, beautiful, universal theme it didn’t have to be strictly Jewish. The menorah is more than just a Jewish symbol – it’s a symbol of light and liberation and that transcends faith.”
Rabbi Yossi Lipsker of Chabad of the North Shore has worked hard over the years to place as many menorahs as possible in highly visible areas to instill Jewish pride during a time when many Jews feel left out of Christmas celebrations. “The cultural environment is very saturated with the message of Christmas, and for a Jew that often presents a dilemma of feeling like an outsider,” he said. “And these menorahs have helped many people – many children, many of the parents who are working very hard to instill their families with Jewish pride and Jewish identity. It’s been an indisputable tool.”
Initially, many local Jews were nervous that such a bold, public display of a Jewish symbol would trigger an anti-Semitic backlash. However, Lipsker argues that the menorahs have had the opposite effect, and have helped establish Jewish belonging within the wider community. “When I first moved here, there were certain Jewish accepted worldviews that said don’t flaunt your Jewishness in public, because it’s gonna cause anti-Semitism and we don’t need to be in your face,” said Lipsker.
“I believe that the menorah is not just a Jewish symbol, I believe it’s a universal symbol of light, it’s a universal message that speaks to all religions about the freedom to practice religion in general – the story of Hanukkah was a story of religious persecution at its heart. The counterbalance of that is the menorah that says hey, guess what – we live in America, this is precisely the place to be proud of it.” Despite initial pushback, public lightings are now well-attended across Greater Boston, and Lipsker says he has received many appreciations from all faiths.
During the grand tour of all the North Shore’s public menorahs, you might see one up in the sky. That is the six-foot tall menorah on top of Chabad of the North Shore in Swampscott, which was hoisted by a bucket truck on top of the building about 20 years ago when Chabad moved into a former Seventh-day Adventist church.
The green, metal menorah, a gift from Richard and Dotty Tatelman, is so high up in the air that Jews and non-Jews alike often use it when giving directions. “It’s become a real North Shore landmark,” said Lipsker. “It encapsulates everything we stand for. Our driving force has always been to communicate and share and broadcast and shine the light of Judaism through the North Shore. Being across the street from the beach, it’s almost like a lighthouse.”