President Jimmy Carter put on a dark overcoat on the evening of Dec. 17, 1979, walked across Pennsylvania Avenue and arrived at Lafayette Square to perform an act no president had ever publicly done.

He prepared to light a menorah in commemoration of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah.

For weeks, Carter had been largely holed up in the White House because of the Iranian hostage crisis, a saga marked nightly by television shows such as “America Held Hostage.” But now he emerged, urged on by a Jewish aide who had fought for a menorah to have equal rights with a Christmas tree.

There was one problem. The silver menorah, shielded from the wind by a tall, narrow glass enclosure, was too deep to be easily lit with a tiny match. A Secret Service agent hurried to a Scandinavian design store one block from the White House called the Midnight Sun, owned by my mother, a Jew who well understood the moment’s importance. She retrieved a box of Swedish eight-inch-long matches from a display case, and the agent hustled back to Lafayette Square.

In this small way, as I learned much later, my mother, Allye Kranish, played a part in a revealing moment in our nation’s history.

There were Christmas parties at the White House, but not Hanukkah parties. There was a National Christmas Tree, but not a National Menorah.

Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, a Jewish Chabad leader, asked the National Park Service for a permit to put a large menorah in Lafayette Square, but the permit was denied on grounds that it violated the separation of church and state. The rabbi complained to Stuart Eizenstat, a Jew who served as Carter’s domestic adviser. Eizenstat promptly called Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, who had rejected the permit.

Eizenstat, in an interview, recalled what he told Andrus, who died in 2017.

“Wait a minute, Cecil. You know, for like 100 years the Park Service has issued permits for the National Christmas Tree at the back of the White House on the Ellipse, also public property. What’s the difference?”

“Well, the Christmas tree is a secular symbol, not a religious symbol,” Andrus responded, according to Eizenstat.

“Give me a break,” Eizenstat said he responded. “You’ve got two choices, if you don’t make the right one of them, the president is going to get in the press, and you’re not going to look good.”

Eizenstat said Andrus, faced with the decision of whether to reject permits for both the Christmas tree and the menorah, chose to issue them both. The tradition was thus born for a National Menorah.

So it was, on the fourth night of Hanukkah, that preparations were made for a silver menorah to be lit in Lafayette Square. Eizenstat found Carter in his tuxedo that night, preparing to attend a state dinner with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He asked the president to go across the street and light the menorah. The president agreed and put on a coat over his tuxedo.

For Carter, a born-again Christian who was pursuing reelection, the moment was also about politics. Shortly before the menorah ceremony, he met with Hasidic rabbis from New York.

“They have about one hundred thousand voters in the city plus another one hundred thousand throughout the country,” Carter wrote later that day in his diary. “We’ve a good chance to get their support.” (It didn’t work; his support among Jews dropped from 71 percent in 1976 to 45 percent in 1980).

Eizenstat and Secret Service agents accompanied Carter across the street. There had been little notice, and only a few dozen people had gathered, Eizenstat said.

Carter delivered a speech about Hanukkah, tying the desires of the Jewish people to be free to his wish that the 50 hostages held in Tehran be freed. He was grateful, he said, “to be partaking in a season when human beings are drawn closer to God and, in that spirit, have confidence that the future will bring us a better life with God and one another.”

He stood before what he called the “glass cage” surrounding the menorah and prepared to light the shamash candle, which in turn is used to light one candle for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. Carter opened the box of my mother’s matches, took one out and lit the shamash.

“I felt it was important for our country to practice its commitment to religious pluralism by lighting the menorah on U.S. Park Service land,” Carter, now 96, said in a statement to The Washington Post this week. “I hoped this would help elevate this Jewish holiday into one all Americans would recognize, and I am grateful this annual event has grown much larger over time.”

Some Jews distrusted Carter because of his support for Palestinians, despite his work negotiating peace between Israel and Egypt in the Camp David accords. He received the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for his international work, including the accords. He also angered Jewish groups with the 2006 publication of his book about the Israeli-Palestine conflict, provocatively titled “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”

Jonathan Alter, the author of the recently published biography “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life,” said the former president has long been misunderstood about his relationship with Jews.

“The menorah story, like Carter’s establishment of the Holocaust Museum, is a way of correcting the erroneous impression that Jimmy Carter was not a good president for the Jews,” Alter said. “And, of course, the most important part of correcting that erroneous impression is a proper appreciation of his virtuoso performance at Camp David, which after four wars between them, ended hostilities between Egypt and Israel, and in the last 47 years, there hasn’t been a shot fired in anger.”

My mother had told me the story of the Secret Service agent arriving at the store for matches a few years before her death in 2019. She didn’t witness the lighting but said the agent returned the box of matches to her.

I never doubted her, but I wanted to know more. My father, Arthur Kranish, a former wire service reporter who died in 1999, had often repeated one of journalism’s most famous rules to me: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” This was usually accompanied by what he said was the motto of the International News Service for which he worked: “Get it first, but first get it right.”

A few years ago, as our family prepared to sell my mother’s home, I found among her belongings a large book of matchsticks. On the front, it still had a label that said the Midnight Sun. On the back was an inscription: “Best Wishes. (Thanks!) To the Kranish’s. Jimmy Carter 12/79.”

So, Dad, the story checked out.

This week, thinking about the absence of my parents at Hanukkah, I wondered if there was more evidence. I found the official White House photo, showing Carter reaching down to the glass-surrounded menorah, a long matchstick in one hand and the distinctive box from my mother in the other.

That moment, Eizenstat said, marked a turning point in Jewish and American history. Ever since, menorah ceremonies at the White House have become standard, and eventually the world’s largest menorah was erected on the Ellipse, where dignitaries need an articulating boom lift to reach the shamash.

“It’s the symbol of American Jewry coming of age with this holiday being much more public,” Eizenstat said.

Evoking the miracle story of Hanukkah, in which the oil of the menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem lasts for eight days instead of one, Eizenstat said that impact of the candle lit by Carter has, in effect, “lasted a lot longer than eight days. It continues now.”

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