When Sabrina Braham put up Hanukkah decorations outside her Palo Alto home in December 2016, she thought it was entirely possible a brick would be thrown through her window.
“There was just a general mood of intolerance,” said Braham, 47, referring to the time around the 2016 election.
But she did it anyway, explaining, “As a Jew, I felt like I had to put out some decorations.” She placed an inflatable menorah and kippah-wearing bear in front of her house, along with a door sign that said, “Happy Hanukkah.”
Luckily, no one vandalized Braham’s home. In fact, the neighborhood, since 2016, has done all it can to embrace the Hanukkah spirit. This year, Braham and several of her Jewish neighbors have created a “Hanukkah Highway” on their Palo Alto street with all the bells and whistles: a huge inflatable menorah and dreidel, a “mensch on a bench” (a Jewish take on the 2005 Christmas children’s book “Elf on the Shelf”), blue lights, a silver and blue wreath and laser-green dreidel lights, all spread out across the front lawns of half a dozen homes of Jewish families.
“There isn’t a whole lot of choice when it comes to Hanukkah decorations,” Braham admitted. (On Amazon, there are 25 times more results that pop up for Christmas decorations than Hanukkah ones.)
It’s not strange to find so many Jews living on one Palo Alto street; according to a 2018 study on Bay Area Jewish life, 34 percent of Jews in the area live in the Peninsula and South Bay. Rabbi David Booth of Kol Emeth, a Conservative congregation in Palo Alto, told J. in February 2018 that the “South Bay has emerged as a key Jewish center in the Bay Area, with Palo Alto/Los Altos/Mountain View at the center,” partly because “Jews are drawn to tech.”
The festivities will culminate on Dec. 20, two days before the holiday begins, when Braham and her neighbors plan to throw a Hanukkah block party. “In the spirit of cultural diversity,” the invitation reads, “we hope to share our fun family traditions with you, our neighbors, and to inspire you to join us in sharing your family celebrations and traditions.” Braham said there will be dreidel games, latke tastings, sufganiyot, music and singing.
The highway is inspired by Palo Alto’s annual Christmas Tree Lane tradition, said Braham, who wanted Jewish kids in the area to have their own decorations on display. “If we are not going to feel comfortable being who we are, then no one benefits,” she said.
But she’s also intent on not making it a contest.
“I see so much press about the competition between Hanukkah and Christmas,” Braham said. “To me, it doesn’t matter. We should all just enjoy what we can from our traditions.”
Braham, who grew up in San Francisco and has lived in Palo Alto for 13 years, is a physician at Menlo Clinic in Menlo Park. She sees the underlying message of Hanukkah as a “story of religious liberty.”
Braham’s neighbor and friend Susan Saal, who started putting up her own decorations a year after Braham, said she was “totally taken” by the idea of being proud of one’s Judaism.
“[Braham] was saying, ‘you have choices in these moments,’” Saal recalled. “To retreat and stick with your own and hunker down. Or you can proudly exhibit your Judaism.”
Saal stressed the educational component of the highway, in that non-Jewish neighbors, who normally wouldn’t know what a Hanukkah celebration looks like, could get to see for themselves how Jews mark the holiday.
“Let’s show people who we are,” Saal said. “That Jews are in the community.”
Saal also said that she would like Hanukkah Highway to be an example for Jewish communities who don’t feel as comfortable showcasing their holiday. “We can do it so safely in Palo Alto,” she said. “People are accepted. We don’t feel any fear here. [We can] set an example for people who are not in communities where they can feel this calm.”