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Hanukkah Dispute : Menorah in City Hall Shines Light on Controversy

December 13, 1989|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a newly arrived Soviet immigrant helping to lead the way, members of a local Jewish group marched and danced their way into Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday to return a menorah holiday display banned for the last two years.

Anatoly Postolov, who arrived Sunday from the Soviet city of Tashkent, praised American freedom as he strained to maneuver the 250-pound brass candelabrum next to a 21-foot-tall Christmas tree in the center of City Hall's rotunda.

As he stepped for the first time onto the rotunda's polished marble floor, little did Postolov know that he was walking into a continuing controversy that touches the very heart of U.S. law.

As the menorah installation ceremony took place, officials of the American Civil Liberties Union repeated their opposition to the display, contending that it violates the constitutional separation of church and state. It was an ACLU lawsuit that caused the menorah to be banned from the rotunda the last two holiday seasons.

Leaders of other Jewish groups, which believe that a menorah display in a government building degrades the religious meaning of Hanukkah, promised to try to keep it out of City Hall next year.

The return of the 200-year-old menorah to the rotunda was praised by leaders of a Westwood-based Jewish group that began loaning it to the city for public display in 1982. The menorah, which stood in a temple in Katowitz, Poland, until the Nazi invasion, now belongs to the West Coast Chabad. The group is a Jewish social services organization that aids Jewish Soviet immigrants.

Chabad leaders praised a 6-month-old state Supreme Court ruling that rejected the ACLU's contention that the menorah display violates the Constitution.

"The American system of justice has worked," exclaimed Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, Chabad's director. "The Iron Curtain has parted in Europe, and it's parting at City Hall."

Postolov, 37, said he fled the Soviet Union because Jews there are still not free to display menorahs or practice their religion openly. The one-time Soviet surgeon was accompanied at Tuesday's ceremony by his wife, Lucia, a 32-year-old pathologist, and their daughter Chana, 5.

"You could not see this celebration in the Soviet Union. You didn't see Jews with smiles on their faces like you do here," Postolov said.

About 50 Jews clapped and danced to a Hebrew tune played on an electronic keyboard and a drum set as the menorah was carried into City Hall. But the ceremony did not bring smiles to the faces of some other Los Angeles Jews.

"Essentially, all of the mainstream Jewish organizations in Los Angeles are of the view these symbols should not be on public property," said Douglas E. Mirell, regional president of the American Jewish Congress. "It's demeaning and debasing of the symbol in our view."

Mirell said Jewish groups will try to persuade city officials to block the menorah display next year.

Carol Sobel, an attorney for the ACLU, said her organization will inspect the City Hall menorah to determine "if it fits in the context of what the Supreme Court ruled was legal." If the display seems more religious than secular, her group may seek to have it removed, she said.

But City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, whose council motion last week cleared the way for Tuesday's ceremony, said she views the City Hall menorah as a cultural artifact. Courts have previously ruled that Christmas trees are not religious symbols and the unlit rotunda menorah is the same, she said.

"I don't think there's a better time than Christmas to call attention to the symbols of various ethnic groups," she said.

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