Hanukkah in America: A History

Hanukkah in America: A History

Hanukkah in America: A History

Hanukkah in America: A History

Synopsis

In New Orleans, Hanukkah means decorating your door with a menorah made of hominy grits. Latkes in Texas are seasoned with cilantro and cayenne pepper. Children in Cincinnati sing Hanukkah songs and eat oranges and ice cream. While each tradition springs from its own unique set of cultural references, what ties them together is that they all celebrate a holiday that is different in America than it is any place else. For the past two hundred years, American Jews have been transforming the ancient holiday of Hanukkah from a simple occasion into something grand. Each year, as they retell its story and enact its customs, they bring their ever-changing perspectives and desires to its celebration. Providing an attractive alternative to the Christian dominated December, rabbis and lay people alike have addressed contemporary hopes by fashioning an authentically Jewish festival that blossomed in their American world. The ways in which Hanukkah was reshaped by American Jews reveals the changing goals and values that emerged among different contingents each December as they confronted the reality of living as a religious minority in the United States. Bringing together clergy and laity, artists and businessmen, teachers, parents, and children, Hanukkah has been a dynamic force for both stability and change in American Jewish life. The holiday's distinctive transformation from a minor festival to a major occasion that looms large in the American Jewish psyche is a marker of American Jewish life. Drawing on a varied archive of songs, plays, liturgy, sermons, and a range of illustrative material, as well as developing portraits of various communities, congregations, and rabbis, Hanukkah in America reveals how an almost forgotten festival became the most visible of American Jewish holidays.

Excerpt

One December evening when I was five years old, my mother helped me dress for a special occasion. She chose my turquoise satin blouse and black felt skirt decorated with big turquoise cabbage roses. It was the fifties. Mom smiled as I traded my play clothes for the outfit she had laid out, but, curiously, she remained in the same blouse and slacks she had worn all day. I alone prepared to be the center of attention. Suitably dressed and coiffed, I went off to—our living room!

There, my father had set up a tripod—huge, it seemed to me—with four blinding flood lights focused on the area in front of our fireplace. He waited for me to enter the scene before beginning to film. With mom nearby but out of range of the cameras lens, I sang the three Hanukkah candle blessings in Hebrew. As tradition mandates, they praise God first for commanding us to kindle the Hanukkah lights, second, for performing a miracle for our forefathers long ago at this season, and third, for sustaining us in life to reach this occasion. With the helper candle my mother had already lighted for me to use, I lighted . . .

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