Why do the gentiles get to have all the fun? Driving around my suburban neighborhood in late September, I couldn’t help but notice that pumpkins, ghosts, and tombstones seemed to be appearing earlier than ever before. Not only that, but people were outdoing themselves. Everyone seemed to have a 30-foot-tall ghoul, zombies climbing out of holes everywhere, blown-up spiders the size of a minivan. One house, down the block from my parents, showed off a full-size carriage, replete with skeleton human riders and one very dead horse. It was glorious.
As I surveyed these impressive lawn decorations, my mind fast-forwarded to the winter, when I had no doubt that Christmas lights and inflatables would outdo all previous years. Surely, without the traditional family visits and festive gatherings, our non-Jewish brothers and sisters would be going all out, showing their holiday spirit with outsize electric bills.
Which got me thinking: Why not me? Why should my two children be denied the delight of seeing a giant polar bear lit up in twinkling lights? How have we as a people allowed the gentiles to monopolize the market of making front yards sing with the joy of the holidays? In fact, sharing the light of Hanukkah is an integral part of the holiday. The rabbis commanded us to light our candles in a place visible to the passing crowds, to share our joy with our communities. And what better way to spread the light than with an 8-foot-tall menorah, lit from within with bright, sparkling lights?
My first foray into the world of lawn decorations was timid. How much money should I spend? Surely $200 for a giant singing polar bear rabbi is too much? I decided to begin at the most fundamental of winter decorations: Christm—er, I mean, Hanukkah string lights. I purchased three sets of blue and white lights, totaling 100 feet of tiny bulbs. Then, I spotted a 4-foot-tall polar bear, holding a dreidel and wearing a yarmulke, for the low, low price of $32. I grabbed it and, feeling overwhelmed by my forays into goyishe narishkeit, committed to holding off on any additional purchases. Just kidding! One week later, I splurged on an 8-foot-tall, light up, inflatable menorah. But now for real, I told myself, no more decorations until I figure out how to set these damned things up. I mean, do I even have outdoor outlets? How many surge protectors do I need? I don’t own a ladder. How am I even supposed to attach these lights to my roof if I don’t have a ladder? Arghhh. How do the goyim do it?
In brisk 29-degree weather, I ventured out to attempt to set up my magical Hanukkah lawn. It was actually much easier than I feared. I own an outdoor extension cord from our vital quarantine purchase of a bouncy house this summer, which took care of my electrical worries. I decided to set the bar low for my string lights, and left them strewn haphazardly and somewhat awkwardly on my bushes, instead of attempting to adorn my house with them. My home was soon glowing in holiday splendor. Why had I not tried this sooner? It was so easy! And so bright! I smiled, but as my giant menorah filled with air and rose to its full height, I was hit with an unexpected feeling of panic. I looked at this giant announcement of my family’s Jewishness, emblazoned with an actual, and enormous, yellow star, and thought, “Oh my God, what have I done?” I was announcing my house as the resting place of a family of Jews. What if the anti-Semites found me? Did I really want to make it so easy for them?
Honestly, this feeling of fear shocked me. I am not someone who goes about my day seeing Jew hatred everywhere. Of course, I am aware of rising rates of anti-Semitism in this country. I’ve read Bari Weiss. But I live in Scarsdale, for goodness sake. What band of Jew haters are trolling the streets of my affluent suburb? I have no reason to fear that by branding my house as Jewish, I am doing anything dangerous. And yet, I found myself wondering whether this lark, this attempt to bring some levity to my children who have had their lives upturned by COVID-19, was perhaps unwise.
There were some other aspects of this endeavor that left me feeling anxious, and like I might have bitten off more than I could chew. There were practical concerns: Do I keep the lights and inflatables plugged in and running at all hours? Do people keep their decorations on a timer, or constantly unplug and replug their power cord in order to save on electricity bills? Is there a time each night everyone just flicks their lights on, spurred on by some signal invisible to me? There were also the safety questions. Could all these cords short-circuit and start a fire? Are these decorations … dangerous? Then there were the social worries: Did I just become the tacky neighbor everyone rolls their eyes at? Also, the shin on the bear’s dreidel was upside down. Who made this thing? There seemed to be so much more at work than a simple set of Hanukkah decorations. I was in too deep.
And then, my kids came home from school. They were, quite literally, speechless. Their brains were struggling to process how we, the Jewish family on the block, could take part in the holiday decoration extravaganza. They could not believe that they could be part of the phenomenon they had believed belonged to others. They asked me to take pictures of them in front of the decorations, instructed me to change the placement of some of the lights (their decorating was far superior), and wondered what it was that made the bear glow from within.
In that moment, I realized that I had done the right thing, and that everything else would fall into place. I have enough to worry about without inventing vigilantes who roam the streets of Westchester, looking for Jewish bears to trash. I can unplug the lights whenever the kids are out of the house or asleep. The upside down shin is on the side of the dreidel facing inward, so it is my little secret. And I will embrace my new identity as the kooky lady who goes a bit overboard to celebrate the holiday. (I am generally too strait-laced for my own good, and this unexpected turn might be good for me.) My kids will tell stories about me one day, and maybe, when they recount the dark and uncertain days of their COVID-19 childhood, when everything they knew was upturned, they will smile and think about how their mother spread the Hanukkah light to the whole block.
Sara Fredman Aeder is the Manager of Tablet Studios.