Menorahs in shop windows help share Hanukah spirit

Hanukah — “a holiday of history, legend, miracles, and inspiration,” in the words of Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray — starts at sundown next Tuesday, and will be greeted this year by 39 menorahs on display in shop windows around Ridgefield’s Main Street and village.

A variety of Hanukah events are planned in Ridgefield, including two public menorah lightings on Main Street. (See related story.)

The Hanukah story of a day’s supply of lamp oil lasting eight days is widely known in today’s multi-faith America. Katchko-Gray, of Congregation Shir Shalom, donated most of the menorahs in shop windows this holiday season, and shared some of the social-political background to the tale of the Maccabees and the lamp oil that comes down from ancient times.

“After the death of King Solomon, the kingdom of Israel split in two. Later Babylon conquered half, destroyed the First Temple, and the Babylonian exile pushed the kingdom of Judah (hence the word Judaism) out in 586 B.C.E.,” she wrote. “Slowly Jews returned, and in 338 B.C.E. the Greeks arrived, conquering lands including Egypt and Israel.

“King Alexander the Greek was a benevolent ruler and blended Greek religion and Eastern philosophy. This culture of Hellenism was embraced by many in the Jewish community. Some Jews felt the Hellenism and Greek values were not consistent with Judaism.

“After Alexander the Great died, his empire was divided and new government decrees limited the practice of Judaism. Violations were punishable by death. Greek symbols were placed inside the holy Temple.

“By 167 B.C.E. the Greek king Antiochus banned the practice of Judaism, with the punishment of death to all who defied the orders. Mattathias and his five sons were known as the “Maccabees” (means men as strong as hammers). Though much smaller in number than the well-armed Greek armies, the Jewish forces under the command of Judah Maccabee ultimately recaptured the Temple Mount, purified the temple once more and showed that there was victory for the oppressed.

“The miracle of Hanukah revolves around the rededication of the Temple Menorah — at the time there was only enough oil to last one day. The small quantity of oil burned for eight days,” she said. “The lighting of the menorah has become a powerful symbol of freedom and hope.”

Cantor Katchko-Gray led volunteers distributing 28 menorahs to village stores that didn’t have them — 11 businesses already had menorahs.

“In all, there will be 39 menorahs lining Main Street,” she said.

“I just thought that with all the beautiful Christmas decorations lining the street, it would be nice to see a little menorah as well. It just makes us feel included and part of the community.

“When I offered a menorah to shops up and down Main Street, I got overwhelming gratitude and enthusiasm. I had two women helping me today, distributing the menorahs, and they remarked that the gratitude and reaction of all the store owners was so positive and so full of gratitude, it made them happy,” Katchko-Gray said.

“Having the menorahs in the stores is wonderful,” she added. “I think it reflects beautifully on our town. Even though we may read in the paper about swastikas here and there, I think for the most part our town has always been welcoming and caring.”

Family of cantors

Katchko-Gray has been a cantor in Ridgefield for 18 years, at Congregation Shir Shalom and its predecessor, Temple Shearith Israel.

She was drawn to the vocation as a result of family history — back to the Holocaust, and before it.

“I lost 70 members of my family, just on my father’s side, full of cantors and singers,” she said. “So that was motive for me to continue in the family tradition of a fourth-generation cantor. My grandfather is a very famous cantor, and had two brothers who were cantors who perished in the Holocaust. I counted 22 singers and cantors in the family. Most of those singers or cantors perished in the Holocaust.

“I’ve always felt compelled to sing the songs of our people to continue a family tradition,” she said.

Her family is now well-established in Ridgefield. Between them, she and her husband, Dr. F. Scott Gray of Connecticut Family Orthopedics, have six boys: David, Aaron, Ezra, and Joey Zimmerman, and Rannon and Justin Gray.

“I’ve raised four sons here, and I have two stepsons,” Katchko-Gray said. “I have six sons.”

Elie Wiesel

Katchko-Gray puts faith in the teachings of Holocaust survivor and scholar Elie Wiesel, dating back to her years at Boston University.

“I studied with him in college and I became a very devoted, close student up until his passing. I recently sang at a memorial for him at BU in October,” she said.

“I think my studies with Elie Wiesel helped me develop as a cantor but also as a human being. You can go back to making a difference in people’s lives, because Elie Wiesel believed in the power of memory but also the power of action.

“He always inspired me to make the most of my life and not to waste a minute.”

She’d long had an activist’s instincts.

The National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia displays a letter from an exchange she had growing up in Stamford.

“When I was a young girl, I walked into Saks Fifth Avenue and only saw Christmas,” she said.

Why weren’t there Hanukah decorations? she wondered.

“My mother said, ‘Write a letter.’”

She did, posing her question to the chairman of Saks Fifth Avenue.

“He wrote a beautiful letter back,” she said, “and that’s the letter they chose to put in their permanent collection. Of the seven boxes of memorabilia I donated to the museum, that’s the letter they chose to put on display. It shows the Jewish community can be integrated into the greater community. During Christmas, we want to not feel left out,” she said.

Which gets back to the menorahs in shop windows.

“My husband and I bought them as a gift to the town, to the town stores, and I hope that they’ll use them year after year,” Katchko-Gray said.

“I think the message of Hanukah is not just to light the menorah, but to try and be a light — be a light to others, be a light in this world, help heal the world, make it a better place. The menorah reminds us of that.”