I'll never forget the look on my sister's face. I called as I rounded the corner of the train station to let her know I was almost there. She asked what kind of car I was driving and I assured her she would have no problem spotting me. And then I heard the gasp.
You see, for the past few years during Chanukah we have strapped a large menorah to the top of our van. Depending on where you live, you may have seen this. But for the general public of Philadelphia, this definitely draws attention. Granted, we are far from the only car to sport one; there are probably a few dozen even in our immediate area. But regardless, a large menorah on the top of a van wishing you a Happy Chanukah stands out.
We first rented one (oh yes, you can rent them) to partake in the large Menorah Parade in which hundreds of cars join each year and drive through the streets of downtown Philadelphia. This is an amazing experience all in itself with those on the sidewalks waving and shouting and my kids in the back screaming "Happy Chanukah" at the top of their lungs. It is a time of pride, unity and celebration.
But it's most powerful when I drive alone. That is when I learn what it means to make a statement and the responsibility that comes with it.
As a woman I fit into the crowd much more than my beard-toting, kippah-wearing husband. Wherever he goes it is pretty obvious that he is a Chassidic Jew (or Amish...a real possibility when you live right outside of Philadelphia). When I walk through the streets, on the other hand, I don't really stand out. Especially now in the winter, a skirt, boots and sweater certainly don't raise any suspicions. Even in the summer when I look overdressed the assumption is often that I am just fearful of the sun.
But when you drive with a menorah on the top of your car you are very in-your-face-Jewish. And the message you are telling the world is that you are proud to be just that! I admit I wasn't really ready for the attention that came with my menorah. I soon learned that every single time I got into my minivan, no matter where I was going or what I was doing, I was going to be watched.
At every traffic light people stare. As cars pass, they wave or honk. I could see in my rear view mirror those in the cars behind me trying to figure out who I was. Others take pictures. People want to know what kind of person drives around like this? Who is this proud Jew? What does one look like?
One of the main reasons we light the menorah is to publicize the miracle that took place when just that little bit of oil lasted for eight days. Another aspect is to add more light to this world. Driving around with my car menorah accomplishes both. I see the smiles, I watch the kids point out the menorah to their parents. I notice the waves. And I feel good knowing that just by running errands I can bring about Jewish pride and unity to my fellow Chanukah celebrators.
But it does more than that. It reminds me that I always need to be conscious of who I am and what I represent...even if the rest of the year people don't even know I am Jewish as I go about my day to day life.
There have been days that I run back inside to make sure I looked decent before dropping my kids off to school. It's not so much that I care if I'm wearing makeup, but if I'm making a statement, I certainly don't need the world knowing that I jumped out of bed thirty seconds earlier!
When the light is about to turn yellow, rather than stepping on the gas I slow down. I mean, how embarrassing to fly through a borderline red light with a menorah on the top of the car! I let cars pass, I am more patient, I smile at passing drivers. After all, it is not about me, it is about the message I am carrying.
As for my sister, she was really embarrassed getting into my van. We debated the whole ride home whether people were laughing with us or at us. A menorah on the van was unbelievably out of her comfort zone and not anything she had any interest in doing. But as we drove around those few days, and the cars next to us smiled and waved, she, too, had no choice but to respond in kind.
After all, when you realize that people are looking at you, you definitely want to be on your best behavior. And once you are aware that even the most mundane errand contains possibilities for a message and connection, that five minute drive suddenly is no longer meaningless or boring! And that is the truth year round. Menorah or not, we are always being watched, and even more than we think. So it is up to us what message we bring when people look our way.
Sara Esther Crispe is the Co-Director of Interinclusion as well as a writer and motivational speaker. She lives with her husband and four children in Merion, PA.