September 23, 2019

Reagan’s chanukiyot light up exhibition

Reminders of an evil empire are on display now at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, and they’re not just related to the Soviet Union.

Instead, 11 menorahs given to the 40th president during his time in office call to mind a struggle for freedom that took place more than 2,100 years ago, as the Maccabees rebelled against the Seleucid Empire.

All but one of the chanukiyot are on view as part of an annual holiday exhibit that lasts until Jan. 2. The other item — a gold-plated filigree menorah on an olivewood base that Reagan received from former Israeli President Yitzhak Navon — is on display permanently, said Jennifer Torres, the facility’s registrar.

U.S. presidents have long received chanukiyot as gifts. It started when Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, presented one to Harry Truman at the White House in 1951. Other traditions followed, from the lighting of a national menorah, beginning in 1979, to the inaugural White House Chanukah Party, in 2001.

Reagan received more than a dozen menorahs over the years.

“I think it shows how beloved Reagan was by so many different groups,” Torres said.

Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University in 1986, gave Reagan a silver menorah dating back to the 18th century. A simpler brass chanukiyah came from the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in 1983. At the time, Reagan spoke about the plight of Soviet Jews, linking an age-old battle with a modern one.

“Chanukah is symbolic of the Jewish struggle to resist submission to tyranny and to sustain its spiritual heritage,” he said. “No people have fought longer, struggled harder or sacrificed more to survive, to grow and to live in freedom than the people of Israel.”

A number of the menorahs on display came from the American Friends of Lubavitch, who had an annual meeting with the president in the Oval Office. In Reagan’s 1984 Chanukah message, he affirmed his belief in the power of the holiday.

“The candles of the menorah attest to the victory of freedom and righteousness,” he said. “May their light be a source of strength and inspiration to all of you and to all mankind.”

A longtime and staunch supporter of Israel, Reagan received nearly 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980 in his match-up with incumbent Jimmy Carter, according to “The Presidents of the United States & the Jews,” by David G. Dalin and Alfred J. Kolatch.

The president viewed Israel as a “strategic asset” and “stabilizing force” in the region. He frequently spoke out in support of Soviet Jewry, condemning the USSR for imprisoning Jewish dissidents and limiting emigration, the authors wrote.

Reagan’s appreciation for the Jewish people and their plight extended back to the influence of his Protestant mother, who invited a Russian Jew to church to talk about what it was like to be a Jew in Russia, according to Paul Kengor, author of “God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life.”

As president, Reagan carried in his jacket a list of those who were held in prison camps or prevented from emigrating, he said.

“It’s an amazing thing to picture that,” said Kengor, who is a professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. “It shows Reagan’s humanity.”

Moreover, Reagan — whose 100th birthday would have been this year — was able to talk about religion in inclusive terms instead of exclusive ones, making it possible for him to develop a broad base of support, according to Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California and a campaign aide in Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign.

“Even though Reagan enjoyed great support from religious conservative voters and even though he talked very broadly about religious faith, he didn’t often devote much time to talking about his own religious beliefs or practice.” he said.

The result, decades later? A holiday exhibit at the former president’s museum that highlights the Christmas and winter gifts that he received — things like music boxes and a patriotic Santa — but doesn’t forget his friendship with the Jews.

As Reagan said of his meeting with the American Friends of Lubavitch in 1986: “I truly valued accepting the menorah from you on the occasion of the observance of Chanukah, and the support of the Orthodox Jewish community means more than I can say.”