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The nightly menorah lightings held at Bowling Green last week through Sunday evoked the first Chanukah celebrations in America, according to the organizer.
“The first Jews to step foot in North America came here, to Lower Manhattan, on Sept. 7, 1654,” said Arthur Piccolo, head of the Bowling Green Association. “Their first Chanukah would have been right here.”
Asser Levy led nearly two dozen Jews to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in Lower Manhattan that year, establishing the first Jewish congregation in North America.
“Where the Jewish experience began in America, that’s where we celebrate Chanukah,” said Piccolo.
The highlight of this year’s celebration came on Thursday, the fifth night of Chanukah, when Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, WABC radio host and executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, served as emcee for a ceremony commemorating another landmark event of Jewish-American history — George Washington’s Newport Letter.
This is the 225th anniversary of the first president’s 1790 letter to the Jewish congregations of Newport, RI, affirming the new nation’s commitment to religious tolerance with the words: “the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Downtown’s Museum of Jewish Heritage participated in the celebration for the first time this year, with chairman Bruce Ratner doing the lighting honors on Thursday. Ratner said he looks forward to the museum being a part of the Bowling Green observance in the future, and agreed with Piccolo that the spot — which looks out on both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island — holds a special significance for the American Jewish experience.
“Lighting the menorah at that location is meaningful and important,” he said. “We were honored to be invited to participate.”
The first public menorah lighting at Bowling Green took place nearly 20 years ago after Piccolo convinced the Sapir family, owners of 2 Broadway, to commission the creator of Bowling Green’s iconic Charging Bull statue, sculptor Arturo DiModica, to create a menorah for the park. The 15-foot-high, bronze menorah adorned with real candles was first lit in 1997 to begin a new Downtown tradition. Unfortunately, that original menorah was lost less than a decade later, replaced in 2005 by a new version lit by LEDs.
Piccolo, who co-founded the Lower Manhattan Historical Society, likes to point out that Bowling Green’s significance in America’s revolutionary history makes it a particularly apt place for lighting the menorah to commemorate the rebellion of the Maccabees and their reclaiming of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Bowling Green, America’s first public park, was actually fenced off by the British authorities as revolutionary sentiment grew in order to protect the statue of the English King from vandalism. But when a copy of the Declaration of Independence reached New York City on July 9, 1776, colonists tore down the fencing and reclaimed Bowling Green, famously topping the statue.
“There is no better place for Americans to celebrate Chanukah,” he said.