In a world awash in divisive political rhetoric and horrific worldwide events, braided with the forever battle against bigotry and antisemitism, a simple story of courage and unity can inspire our better angels and the wider world.
Such is the tale of a Montana community’s fight against acts of hate, recounted in The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate by Dr. Janice Cohen and illustrated by artist Bill Farnsworth.
Written almost three decades ago and now republished in an expanded edition to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Billings, Montana community’s response to hate, The Christmas Menorahs continues to resonate with readers of all ages, imparting lessons on confronting acts of hate: it requires a united front against the perpetrators of hate and a network of support for those who are targeted. And, as the residents of Billings discovered, it demands the courage to stand up.
In 1993, Billings, Montana, experienced a surge of hate literature targeting Jews, the Black and LGBT communities, and other minorities. Neo-Nazi and affiliated hate groups struck under cover of the night, but within days, the community responded.
Led by Billings Chief of Police Wayne Inman, the Montana Association of Churches, and other community leaders, the town reacted by holding meetings, teach-ins, and creating a network to counter the onslaught of hate speech.
Unfortunately, after a lull in activity, intimidation tactics escalated with bomb threats, death threats against the police chief and other community leaders, and property defacement (swastikas and racial slurs painted on Black residents’ houses). And then, during Hanukkah holidays, a cinderblock was thrown through a window displaying a lighted menorah in young Isaac Schnitzer’s room.
Isaac, gazing in incomprehension at the shattered window glass and menorah on his bedroom floor, marks the beginning of Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate, where the question of how a community responds to criminal acts of hatred is raised.
As Cohen’s narrative unfolds, complemented by Farnsworth’s elegant paintings, readers are immersed in Isaac’s struggle to understand why he was targeted and how the community formed an alliance to take a stand against hatred. The resounding message became, “Not in Our Town,” and their resistance was finally symbolized by images of menorahs printed in the Billings Gazette and used to be placed in thousands of windows across Billings.
The incident was well-researched by Dr. Cohn. Inspired by a 1994 article about the town’s struggle appearing in the New York Times, the psychotherapist, who specializes in helping adults and children cope with grief and loss, immediately recognized an opportunity for a children’s book and spent time in Billings holding interviews with children, parents, Chief Inman, and other town leaders. That first-hand knowledge shines through and informs Isaac’s characterization. His confusion and fear are visceral, and the search for understanding is compelling.
Bill Farnsworth’s oil paintings are realistic portrayals of the key moments in the narrative. They could easily pass as portraits of the Schnitzer family, Chief Inman, and others as the story is told. This personalization elevates the impact of the story, reminding readers that the story is true: it happened and continues to happen today.
The anniversary edition of The Christmas Menorahs is not a stand-alone story. It’s also a learning nexus to help parents and teachers conduct discussions around topics like “Fighting Bullies,” “Fighting Hatred and Intolerance,” Learning from History: How Acts of Goodness and Courage Reverberate,” and how to employ the creative arts to tell the story in your own way. Each section highlights prompts to open the discussion.
Additionally, Dr. Cohn has thoughtfully added contextual material, including an overview of the Billings events, a powerful interview with the Billings Gazette Editor Darrell Ehrlick, an interview with Tove Bamberger, a Jewish child in Denmark during World War II, who tells a story that becomes a key motif in the book, and the story of the Hanley family whose conversations about antisemitism in 1993 are as articulate today.
Originally conceived as a children’s book, The Christmas Menorahs has long become a highly praised story by all ages. Today, the message couldn’t be more important: that no matter the religion, race, nationality or gender, any person targeted by hatred should be able to find refuge and support from their community and those who are willing to stand up.
Dr. Janice Cohn is a psychotherapist specializing in helping adults and children cope with grief, loss, and life transitions. Her former newspaper column for the Family Times Section of The Washington Times, which focused on raising compassionate children, ran for over two years and reached approximately half a million people. She is a former Presidential Faculty Appointee to the Columbia University Continuing Education Seminar on Death and Dying, and former chairperson of the Multidisciplinary Bereavement Committee of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
To find out more about The Christmas Menorahs project and to order, go here.