Hanukkah in America: A History

By Pleck, Elizabeth H. | American Jewish History, October 2014 | Go to article overview

Hanukkah in America: A History


Pleck, Elizabeth H., American Jewish History


Hanukkah in America: A History. By Dianne Ashton. New York: New York University Press, 2013. 343 pp.

Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE after the routing of Syrian-Greek occupiers by a ragtag military force led by Judah Maccabee. Hanukkah candles burn considerably brighter in the United States than among Jews living in another parts of the world. Hanukkah was not mentioned in the Bible and thus does not carry the imprimatur of divine sanction. Most American Jewish history traces the decline in religious observance of holidays and Shabbat; Dianne Ashton tells the opposite story, of how and why a minor Jewish festival became more celebrated in the present than it was in the past Very rarely Hanukkah coincides with the American holiday of Thanksgiving; more commonly, it occurs during the Christmas season. But it did come to prominence in the 1830s when Christmas became a domestic festival. What seems to have triggered the desire for a Jewish alternative to Christmas was not the home celebration of Christmas but the church celebration of it. Two prominent American rabbis, Isaac Mayer Wise and Max Lilienthal, plumped Hanukkah as a synagogue-based celebration for Jewish children (which would make it unnecessary for Jewish children to celebrate Christmas). They refused to accept the German Jewish definition of Christmas as a cultural, not religious, celebration. If Jewish children grew up experiencing the tremendous appeal of Christmas, they argued, as adults they would forsake their ancient faith in favor of Christianity. Hanukkah became even more central as a holiday celebration in the home in the late nineteenth century. Originally in eastern Europe, Jews gave gelt to children at Hanukkah, which children were expected to contribute to charity or to their teachers. Eastern European Jews thought that buying presents symbolized their success in America and would also bring happiness to children at the time of the year when Christian children enjoyed a merry Christmas. Thus, the child-centered nature of the Jewish family was both the cause and the consequence of the making of Hanukkah into a domestic occasion. Food in the home on Hanukkah also had symbolic meaning. It was supposed to be fried to emphasize the significance of the miracle of oil in the Temple's lamps burning for eight nights.

Ashton agrees that Hanukkah evolved as the Jewish alternative to Christmas, but the story of Hanukkah was also constantly revised in light of developments and debates within American Jewish history. The significant elements of the story were military victory against the odds, a Jewish elite who forsook their own religion to adopt the occupier's beliefs and culture, divine intervention to aid Jews struggling against foreign domination, and Jewish warriors fighting on behalf of religious liberty and national independence. …

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