Every December, for roughly the last 10 years, a group of volunteers has made the schlep up Tempe Butte, better known as “A Mountain,” to install a 20-foot tall menorah for Chanukah.
Stu Siefer, Vic Linoff and Elliot Ellentuck of Temple Emanuel’s Men of Emanuel are the three responsible for the huge holiday decoration, which Siefer believes is the largest menorah in the state of Arizona.
Back in 1994, the first year a menorah graced the Tempe skyline, it wasn’t located on Tempe Butte.
“Originally, it was located on top of the flour mill,” Siefer recalled. “This is the third menorah that we’ve had. In fact, we’ve just upgraded it, so it’s like version three-and-a-half. Our very first menorah we pulled up to the top of the flour mill, which is 140 feet high. We had to take this one-person tiny elevator up to service it once it was up there. Then the elevator broke and we had to climb a ladder while getting dive-bombed by pigeons.”
When the company that owned the iconic Hayden Flour Mill was considering redeveloping the site, the menorah was forced to find a new a home.
“For many years, they’ve been putting Christian symbols up during Easter and Christmas on Tempe Butte,” Siefer said. “We approached the then-mayor of Tempe, Neil Giuliano, and presented the idea of putting up a menorah during
Chanukah. The idea was fully embraced by the mayor and the city council at the time.”
Due to damage that occurred while taking down the first menorah, the group decided to construct a second one that was even larger. Like the first menorah, the second was constructed of steel.
“This one had collapsible arms, so it could be folded up, but it was extremely heavy,” Siefer said.
They enlisted the help of Arizona State University’s (ASU) Hillel members to help carry the menorah. Over the years, several high school Jewish groups also helped until Men of Emanuel stepped up and agreed to help carry and set up the menorah annually.
Despite the help, the steep grade and irregular terrain of the trail made the task exceedingly difficult, which led to the construction of the third and current menorah made of aluminum. This one was not collapsible and proved cumbersome to transport, so modifications were made to allow the menorah to be carried up in several parts to be assembled on the mountain.
On the morning of Sunday, Dec. 10, the group will meet behind the old flour mill to transport and install the menorah. On the first night of Chanukah, group members will gather on the side of the mountain, pray and light it. Then the group will gather at a nearby restaurant, House of Tricks, to eat latkes and share stories of Tempe’s history.
On each of the following seven nights, a volunteer will make the climb and light the computer-controlled menorah. The menorah will be taken down on Sunday, Jan. 7.
As it turns out, the history of decorating the butte goes back to well before 1994.
Hayden Butte Preserve, the mountain’s official name, is home to several hundred petroglyphs, which were mostly made by the Hohokam. They were the same people responsible for constructing the nearby Pueblo Grande, a large, multi-room adobe structure, as well as the original system of canals restored by the early pioneers.
In the 1870s, just south of the butte, Charles Trumbull Hayden constructed a ferry for crossing the Salt River. The ferry lent the city of Tempe its original name, Hayden’s Ferry.
An early pioneer and world traveler, Darrell Duppa, thought the butte bore a passing resemblance to a mountain in Greece called the Vale of Tempe, and so the city was renamed. Duppa is also credited with suggesting the name for the city of Phoenix.
Siefer noted there were a few prominent Jewish individuals who made Tempe their home in those dusty pioneer days, such as cattleman Wolf Sachs, one of Tempe’s first city council members. Siefer also said the three wise men Christmas decoration that shares the mountain with the menorah was first erected sometime in the 1930s.
The first letter to grace the peak was installed in 1918. Back then, ASU was called the Tempe Normal School and a large “N” was installed on the mountain.
In 1925, when the school changed its name to Tempe State Teachers College, the “N” was converted into a “T.” The school’s name changed again in 1938, to Arizona State Teachers College, and so the “T” became an “A.”
According to an ASU State Press story from Sept. 19, 1952, “unknown students” destroyed the “A” with a bomb blast. In 1955, a new “A” made of steel-reinforced concrete was constructed and rests on the mountain to this day. JN