Good morning! Good morning, and welcome to Sunday Griot! So nice of you to take time out of your busy holiday schedule to stop by for a story. Please, I know it’s not Chanukah yet, and won’t be until next week, but we’ve got some oil in the back and batter for do-it-yourself latkes. (Make sure you have some coffee to wake yourself up first. I don’t think I actually remembered to tell the landlord we were going to do this when I rented the room.)
Today’s story is a Chanukah story, and it isn’t. Well, it happened around the time of Chanukah, and it involves a menorah, but there’s much more to it than that. You may have heard this story before, but I wanted to share it one more time.
And in 1993, it had a problem.
Or rather, the problem came to a head in 1993, but it had been simmering long before that. One day racist literature began to appear in town where none had been before. When a local woman placed an item about a Jewish educational event in the Billings Gazette, she received a death threat. Not long after, someone put a bullet through the window of her minivan as she pulled out of her driveway.
Then in 1993 Ku Klux Klan literature was left with cars at a parking lot where a Martin Luther King Day event was being held. The local Jewish cemetery was desecrated. An Indian woman’s home was painted with swastikas. The local Jewish congregation began to receive bomb threats. “Skinheads” appeared at a service in the city’s African Methodist Episcopal chapel and took up positions in the back. They made no overt actions to disrupt the service, but it was obvious they intended to intimidate those in attendance.
Then, one day in early December, Isaac Schnitzer got a brick through his bedroom window. His only crime was posting a picture of a menorah in his window that a friend in his elementary school class had given him.
Isaac’s mother Tammie decided enough was enough. She was used to being a stranger in her own home town; she had converted to Judaism to marry her husband Brian, a local doctor. In doing so she became one of only about a thousand Jews in Montana, and suddenly she had to look at the world in a different way. You see, it was her minivan that had had its window shot out. Isaac was with her at the time.
Tammie got in touch with Gary Svee, an editor at the Gazette, who agreed to run a front page story about the incident in the paper under the headline, “But how do you explain that to a child?” The story also recalled how, when the Nazis occupied Denmark during World War II and forced Danish Jews to wear yellow stars on their coats, the King of Denmark wore one as well and many of his Christian subjects followed suit.
That day’s edition of the Gazette carried a full-page picture of a menorah along with an editorial urging readers to stand up against the violence. That day paper menorahs began to appear in windows in houses all over Billings. and when more bricks came, more menorahs went up. Reader boards around town urged peace. Ministers denounced the violence from their pulpits. Glaziers and painters volunteered their services to repair damage. The Gazette later estimated that as many as 10,000 homes had paper menorahs in their windows at the height of the campaign. When you remember that Billings is a city of less than 100,000 people, it starts to sound like almost half of the families in town had menorahs in their windows.
And it worked. Whether the perpetrators of the hate crimes left the city, or went underground, or felt ashamed of their deeds and forsook them, it’s impossible to say, but the crimes stopped, all because the people of Billings united to say they weren’t going to put up with them any more.