Hanukkah, or what much of the country outside of New York City thinks of as Jewish Christmas, begins this weekend.
As New Yorkers, you probably think you know what that means. Candle lighting. Dreidel playing. Prayer saying. Latke pounding. And presents. Lots of them. If you are a kid and you are very lucky, as many as eight gifts, one for each night of the holiday. This is a holiday, I should note, that celebrates the Hebrew army's retaking of Jerusalem from Syrian soldiers, and the miracle of a depleted oil supply lasting eight nights in the Second Temple. The Jewish troops were led by a fierce warrior named Judah Maccabee—Maccabee is my full first name, making me very popular with rabbis this time of year.
Lights! Festival! Action! / Photo by Josh Appel/Facebook
Oh, but not so fast, clever New Yorkers, because the truth is you likely don't know everything about Hanukkah in the city. For example: Do you know about the World's Second-Largest Menorah? Unless you live in my apartment building on the busy traffic circle near the Prospect Park tennis courts, or along the surrounding streets of Windsor Terrace, Kensington, and Ditmas Park (WenMas, some realtor is no doubt coining as I type), it's quite possible you don't know about the World's Second-Largest Menorah.
Which is a little weird because the World's Second-Largest Menorah (WSLM) is really great and it's also really big. It is, in fact, 31 feet high and 24 feet wide. It weighs 4,000 pounds and is made of steel. I know this not because I've measured and weighed the World's Second-Largest Menorah—who has that kind of time?—but because it says so on a plaque just above the magnificent structure's legs, placed there by the Lubavitch Youth Organization, the group that owns and operates it.
Unless you live in my apartment building on the busy traffic circle near the Prospect Park tennis courts, it’s quite possible you don’t know about the World’s Second-Largest Menorah.
Every year, a day or so before the beginning of Hanukkah, a crane appears out the traffic circle–facing windows of my family's sixth-floor apartment. Some families may trek to Rock Center for the annual lighting of the city's collective Christmas tree, but the seasonal ritual for my wife, our two daughters, one cat, and (newly) one dog is an easier commute. That crane marks the unofficial start of my family's winter holiday. We don't always catch the rabbi climbing the crane on subsequent nights to light the tall candles, but we try. By night four, the high blaze begins to cast a spell on us, like if you could look down from outer space and see stars below you. (We also have a Hanukkah tradition that involves eating tacos on the fifth night; we call it Tacanukah, but that's another obsession.)
See? Really large, right?! / Photo by Mac Montandon
Some years we match the outdoor action in our dining room and light our own menorah, but I have to say that those normal, human-size candles, well, they don't hold a candle to the candles in the World's Second-Largest Menorah. And really, how could they? Our ceilings are not 31 feet high. But outside in the traffic circle: Now that's a Festival of Lights!
A few years after moving into our apartment and witnessing the moving and spectacular conflagration that is the World's Second-Largest Menorah lighting, I had a couple thoughts that perhaps you've had already. Namely: How great is it that, in our go-go city, where complete dominance is a social sport, someone decided to celebrate not winning? They believe that second place is good enough? Wonderful. But also: Where is the World's Largest Menorah?
How great is it that, in our go-go city, where complete dominance is a social sport, someone decided to celebrate not winning?
Some light Googling reveals that this question does not have as simple an answer as you might suspect. (And nowhere near as simple as the answer to another fave Jewish query: Why is this night different from all other nights?).
According to a website with what appears to be the best search engine optimization where very large menorahs are concerned:
"Both the Manhattan and Brooklyn Grand Army Plazas host competitors in the race for the World’s Largest Hanukkah Menorah. Gather around the 32-foot-high, gold-colored, 4,000-pound steel holiday icon across the street from the Plaza hotel (Manhattan) to kick off the Jewish Festival of Lights…across the East River, go to the top of Prospect Park to see its similarly sized rival illuminated."
Your read that right: 32 feet. Thirty-two. Or: one foot taller than the World's Second-Largest Menorah. Call me a cynical New Yorker, but that strikes me as suspicious. If the World's Second-Largest Menorah was built before these other jobs, did the constructors of the two largest menorahs go that extra 12 inches just to stick it to the World's Second-Largest Menorah? And if the WSLM was slapped together after these other two towering illuminators, why not boost it ever slightly to become the third candleholder atop the leaderboard?
I called the Lubavitch Youth Organization for some answers.
Not the World's Second-Largest Menorah—but still pretty good! / Photo courtesy of IVolunteer New York/Facebook
The spokesperson who picked up the phone in the Lubavitch Youth Organization's Brooklyn office was soft-spoken and helpful. He was also a little confused as to why I cared about the World's Second-Largest Menorah. I explained about seeing it from my apartment, about looking down on golden stars. He told me that the LYO also built and operates the 32-foot number in Manhattan. He said the Manhattan menorah was constructed in 1977 and Brooklyn's runner-up "probably in the late ’80s." He didn't sound nearly as pumped as I thought he would about the World's Second-Largest Menorah. I get that: It's tough to get too worked up about something that's not No. 1.
And when I asked if he knew why Brooklyn's menorah is 12 inches shorter than its brother from another borough, he said he'd have to find out and call me back. A few minutes later, he did: "Yeah, we don't know why that is," he told me, without a trace of remorse for coming up short.
I actually appreciate his nonchalance. Why, after all, should we care if one menorah is bigger than another? What's the big deal about not being the top dog—or in this case, the biggest menorah? When all is said and done, perhaps size doesn't really matter? Maybe, this very calm gentleman on the phone was essentially implying, we New Yorkers put too much emphasis on winning, and not enough on simply being fabulous at whatever size we are.
Speculating aside, it makes sense that the World's Second-Largest Menorah is actually the perfect symbol for this holiday. That's because celebrating Hanukkah is, in many ways, about rooting for an underdog.