By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
It began with a stone thrown through the window of a Jewish family in Billings, MT, on December 2, 1993. The family had been displaying its Hanukkah menorah in the window and what occurred next surprised people. In fact, the events that followed were so powerful that the story still resonates almost three decades later. It also served as the inspiration for Lee Wind’s new picture book “Red andGreen and Blue and White,” with pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky (Levine Querido).
“The heart of what really happened in Billings, MT, in December 1993 touched my heart,” Wind said in an e-mail interview. “It was widely reported, in national media (National Public Radio, The New York Times, there was a PBS documentary, and it even inspired the formation of a nonprofit, Not in Our Town). When someone threw a stone through the window of a Jewish family who had decorated their home for Chanukah, there were two pivotal things that happened.”
It was those two things that made this story different from many other instances of antisemitism. “The first is that the family (who had a little boy in kindergarten at the time, Isaac) put up their Chanukah decorations again after replacing the window. They stood up for themselves,” he said. “And the second is that some of Isaac’s friends who weren’t Jewish drew menorahs in support. Isaac’s classmate Teresa’s family put their image of a menorah up in their window next to their Christmas decorations. That idea caught on, and the local paper published an editorial with a full-page image of a menorah urging local residents to display it in their windows as a sign of solidarity, and ‘our determination to live together in harmony.’ In less than three weeks, over 10,000 menorahs were displayed all over their town. And when the whole community stood up for others, the haters backed down. And in Billings, love won.”
These two reactions taught an important lesson. “That dual message – standing up for yourself and standing up for others who are different in some way – seemed like the perfect expression of what the holidays, and community, really mean,” Wind added.
Wind has pondered the best way to talk to children about antisemitism. “The question I thought about a lot when writing this was how do we talk to kids – young kids like those in kindergarten, the age Isaac and Teresa were – about hard subjects?” he said. “As a parent myself, it feels like a balancing act between wanting to protect them and realizing that not having them know things puts them at risk. How do we let kids know bad things happen and not scare them, but instead have them feel supported and empowered?”
Although based on a real incident, Wall noted that he added to the story to create characters children can relate to. “As I explain in [my] author’s note, Isaac and Teresa are real people, but I fictionalized their interactions and some details of how things unfolded,” he said. “In doing so, it was important for me that Isaac and Teresa have agency in the story. They turn on the holiday lights – Teresa’s house red and green (from their Christmas tree), and Isaac’s house blue and white (from their decorative electric menorah). I made Teresa an artist, who draws the menorah and puts it up in their home’s window to stand up for Isaac. And I made Isaac a poet, who writes rhymes that offer a second, kid-level perspective on what happens when the colors come together: ‘Red and Green and Blue and White.’”
Wind offers several lessons in his story, including the idea that “every kid can be an artist and a poet.” He also hopes that “kids who have this book read to them can realize that they don’t have to wait to make our world a better place. They can do that, right now, by standing up for themselves, and standing up for others. Tikkun olam – healing the world. And it can be as simple as a drawing, or a poem. And knowing that can be so powerful, and spread so much light – ‘Red and Green and Blue and White!’”