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December 20, 2010 3:45 pm

The Rock Promoter and the Genesis of the Public Chanukah Menorah

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From suburban shopping malls to City Halls, from Moscow to Melbourne, Hong Kong to the Congo, they’re everywhere. Menorahs.  Big ones. Millions attend their lightings and millions more see them on their way to work, on their way home, in the midst of shopping. They have given Judaism a level of public profile perhaps unprecedented in the annals of Jewish history. Their light boldly glows in places that once sought their very extinction. Think: Rome, Athens, Berlin, Siberia, Warsaw, the list goes on…

Few know how this phenomenon began and the unlikely locale of its genesis. Here, then, is the rest of the story, the way I heard it from the man himself.

San Francisco 1973.  Movie producer Vincent Tortino approached the newly appointed Chabad Ambassador (Shliach) to the Bay Area-Rabbi Chaim Yitzchak Drizin for help with a documentary he was producing about the Chabad Chassidic Movement. The documentary was completed with Rabbi Drizin’s collaboration, and eventually aired on  KQED – a public TV station in San Francisco. The executive director of the station happened to be a Jew by the name of Zev Putterman, who as a result of the documentary forged a friendship with the young Chabadnik and was taken by his mission to spread Judaism in the decidedly secular environs of San Francisco of the early 70’s. Together they began to brainstorm ideas as to how to break the proverbial spiritual ice that accounted for the cold indifference to Torah and Yiddishkeit that was so prevalent.

In 1975, Chaim Drizin thought of staging daily shofar blowing ceremonies in Union Square-the heart of downtown San Francisco-during the month of Elul. The idea however, was nixed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Isaac Chodakov. He thought that if people hear the Shofar in Union Square throughout the month, they won’t feel the need to attend Synagogue and hear the Shofar on Roah Hashanah itself.

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Rabbi Drizin did not let go of the idea of doing something Jewish in a very public way to awaken the dormant soul of Jewish San Francisco. With the approach of Chanukah a light went off in his head (pun intended), as he thought of a public Menorah lighting in Union Square as the ideal way to reach a broad spectrum of the community with a statement of Jewish pride and joy.

Drizin contacted his friend Zev Putterman about his idea. Putterman’s initial response was: “Chanukah? That’s a ‘home holiday!’  Drizin explained to him the concept of “Pirsumei Nissa,” the Talmudic term for publicizing the miracle. As a media person, he caught on pretty quick.

Now it was time to think of the technicalities of making this vision a reality. No one had ever done this before. The first question was how to build a large Menorah. Putterman told Drizin that he had just the right man. He picked up the phone and called his friend Bill Graham, the famous rock promoter, and said “Bill, I’m here with a rabbi, and he’s got a project I think you’ll like.” Bill immediately responded, “Come over tomorrow at 3 p.m.”

Drizin found in Graham a real heartfelt Jew, but with no previously known connections to the Jewish community.

Graham’s life story was tragic. He was the youngest son of a lower-middle-class Jewish family that had emigrated from Russia to Germany prior to the rise of Nazism. Graham’s father died two days after his son’s birth. Graham’s mother placed her son and his younger sister in an orphanage in Berlin due to the increasing peril to Jews in Nazi Germany. The orphanage sent them to France in a pre-Holocaust exchange of Jewish children for Christian orphans. Graham’s older sisters stayed behind with his mother. After the fall of France, Graham was among a group of Jewish orphans spirited out of France. A majority of the children-including Graham’s older sister-did not survive the journey. Graham’s mother and many of his siblings were killed in Auschwitz.

Once in the United States, Graham stayed in a foster home in The Bronx in New York City. After being taunted as an immigrant and being called a Nazi because of his German accented English, Graham first worked on his accent, eventually being able to speak in a perfect New York accent, and changed his name (from Grajonca to Graham.) In the 1960’s he became a rock concert promoter. Graham was killed in a helicopter crash near Vallejo, California in October 1991, while returning home from a Huey Lewis and the News concert at the Concord Pavilion.

Bill Graham loved Drizin’s idea. He called his production manager who oversees the construction of stage sets, and told him about it. They decided on a 25 foot steel Menorah with mahogany on the outside.

Graham then turned to Rabbi Drizin and asked him who was funding this. Drizin replied that he did not have a donor for the Menorah yet. Graham said “it’s on me.” That was a $10,000 Chanukah gift.

Joseph Alioto, the then Mayor of S. Francisco, green lighted the permits.The buzz was effective: Over 1000 people came to the Menorah lighting on Sunday night. It made the national news.

In one account of the lighting reported in the California living, a participant recorded:

“Now as the torch (shamash) moves through the crowd, Rabbi Drizin starts singing and urges the crowd to join him. The words he sings echo the feeling given by the passing of the torch – the unity and commonality of this body of Jewish people of different ages, types, cultures, languages, in affirming their connection too each other and to their faith…I must tell you that, for the first time in fifteen years, there was a Chanukah menorah in my home after that night in Union Square. And then each night of Chanukah after that my daughter Sarah and I lit the Menorah and put it in her window, to shine light out into the darkness…”

The writer of this account, law professor Baruch Bush, is today a prominent member of the Lubavitch Community in Crown Heights, an observant Jew with a large family.

Chabad Houses around the world started to emulate the Union Square Menorah in city Squares around the world. The rest, as they say, is history.

Ruvi New is director of Chabad, East Boca Raton

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