Americans and how they view the Jewish holidays

An academic telling of how Hanukkah is perceived by non-Jews in America

 CARTOONIST RICHARD CODOR presents his whimsical spin on menorahs, this one with Judah Maccabee (photo credit: RICHARD CODOR)
CARTOONIST RICHARD CODOR presents his whimsical spin on menorahs, this one with Judah Maccabee
(photo credit: RICHARD CODOR)
Noted scholar Prof. Jenna Weisman Joselit wrote an article over 30 years ago tracing the observance of the Jewish holidays in USA from 1880 to 1950. She gave prominence to Passover, but carefully documented how Hanukkah reached the multifaceted level of observance that is very much a part of our lives today.
Initially, we move to the western part of the United States at the end of the 19th century. We are informed by a daily San Francisco newspaper on the 26th of December 1897 that a Hanukkah celebration was held that day at the Bush Street Temple. The children performed intricate marches while carrying the American flag. Following that there were recitations about Hanukkah, Judah Maccabee and the miracle of the oil burning for eight days.
“Many candelabra were lit as the prayers were recited,” the paper wrote.
Now Rabbi Isidore Myers spoke to those assembled, young and old. “To be regarded with favor by God, you must show how much you can do to spread the truth. Show your pride to your noble ancestors by your own heroism, remembering that the true hero is the one who does God’s will. Let us follow the example of the noted Judah Maccabee.”
More than 20 years ago, Professor Andrew Heinze, wrote a very important book, Adapting to Abundance.
It is a fascinating study which documented how the observance of Passover, Sukkot and Hanukkah in the early 20th century was strengthened because these three holidays adapted to the commercial culture of American Holidays at the time. In the case of Hanukkah, the observance grew to be a massive gift-giving event. However, in that period, the traditional element was not forgotten.
“A view of the Lower East Side in the 1890s,” Heinze wrote, “showed that Hanukkah had survived the shocks of immigration. During that time, passengers on the Second Avenue ‘El’ train heading down toward 1st Street in the darkness of a December evening were struck by the rows of burning candles that illuminated the windows of tenement house after tenement house.”
The Hanukkah gift ritual, though traditional as we know, took on enormous proportions in the USA 100 years ago. In his book, Heinze demonstrated that Jews, proportionally, surpassed the Christians who regularly filled their homes with presents during the Christmas season.
The main objects used on Hanukkah, menorahs and dreidels, were in demand by the growing number of American Jews. Jacob Schiff, a leading figure in developing financial security for immigrants, underwrote factories for them where they could work in the 1920s.
I POSSESS a Hanukkah menorah fashioned by the hands of those newly arrived Jews. My grandfather, HaRav Tuvia Geffen, either bought it or got it as a gift. My father inherited it and left it to me.  That menorah has continued to glow on Hanukkah for almost 100 years.
My other grandfather, Cathriel Birshtein of Norfolk, who made furniture, carved dreidel molds out of wood then poured hot lead into them and dreidels appeared.
His children used them in the 1920s, my mother especially, as they were growing up in Norfolk. I possess a few of those lead spinning Hanukkah tops.
A Prof. Joselit, in her study, has provided us with a description of a 1950s period piece, the oversized dreidel known as the Maccabee.
“Made of laminated plastic and standing four feet tall, the Maccabee, touted its creators, the Dra-Dell Cooperation of North Bergen, New Jersey, ‘expresses a true holiday spirit in the home where modern children may share the wonder of Hanukkah.’”
In the photograph showing its use, the children are sitting around the Maccabee with presents stacked up under this decorated top.
As a chaplain, I (and American Jews in general) am proud that the military high command at the Pentagon has encouraged Jews since the Civil War to observe their holidays while serving in the US Armed Forces.
Before I reached my base in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, as a chaplain in 1965, our post already had a wonderful way to mark Hanukkah. A large menorah had been crafted out of wood several years earlier with nine sockets for electric bulb lights.
On one side, next to the bulbs, a Judah Maccabee figure had been painted. On the other side you could see Antiochus in his armor. Both had swords in their hands.
Each night of Hanukkah we recited the blessings outside, screwed in the bulb for that night, adding it to the other ones all aglow.
Of course, we could not light the other bulbs with our “shamash,” which shone brightly in the middle of the giant Menorah. About 20 soldiers were there every night – Christian chaplains, too.
On the Sunday of Hanukkah, a wonderful latke party was held at the officers’ club. Hundred-pound bags of potatoes were sent over by the quartermaster. The highest ranking Jewish officer on the post, the late full-bird Col. Jack Wolfson, put his apron on, then pan-fried latkes for almost an hour. Soldiers volunteered to peel the potatoes; others took the hot latkes, when they were ready, and served.
The celebration was a big hit with more than 150 soldiers, Jewish civilians and chaplains attending. The National Jewish Welfare Board Ladies Auxiliary from New York sent toys for the children, chocolate Hanukkah gelt for everyone, and other small gifts. Children were from small Oklahoma towns nearby where their families owned stores.
THE NOTED collector who assembled and resurrected the massive works of Arthur Szyk, thereby bringing them back for all to enjoy, is Rabbi Irvin Ungar.
He has curated exhibits of Szyk around the world. They portray the artist’s deep Jewish commitment and his American patriotism. In the 1930s, before Szyk moved from Poland to USA, he created a handy item which any of us could use, and our kids, too. He designed a set of playing cards with newly drawn pictures of the leaders of the Jewish people, heroes all. On one of the playing cards we see Judah Maccabee.
The sets of cards initially printed in the 1930s had all been lost. A few years ago, Ungar found some and decided to print them again. The “Judah Maccabee” card depicts determination  in the leader’s facial expression.
THE LATE Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, is recalled in many different ways. Each giant menorah shining brightly in a central public space of every major city in US is an inspiring memorial to him.
Through these, our holiday infuses the atmosphere of America with our continuing call of freedom for all. In Israel, we take for granted giant menorahs on city centers, buildings and the like. In America, Chabad fought a legal battle to ensure their placement “front and center.”
It has worked and lights up all of our hearts.
RICHARD “DICK” CODOR, a native of Delaware, lives and works in New York. He has become a leading Jewish comic artist and has created many notable drawings (one is shown above) for Hadassah. He produced an illuminated book for children on Hanukkah.
His Bird of Peace, drawn in 1978 when Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat won the Nobel Prize was kindly executed, since he added Jimmy Carter. Codor’s drawing first appeared in Israel while he was working here for Arab TV. T-Shirts were made and distributed at the Nobel Prize ceremonies.
Because we are very close friends, he permitted me to print envelopes with the Bird of Peace. I put on stamps and had them canceled. Since it was a way of making money, I sold them in front of the main post office on Jaffa Road. How does all of this stretch out to Hanukkah?
I suggested to Dick that he draw menorahs of different types for Hanukkah.
We used those to make Hanukkah cards. The most noted were the Hanukkah menorahs on the back of a reindeer. Quite a number of cards were sold but only collectors have them now.
Here in Israel, where he lived for 10 years from 1971-1981, Dick drew a poster of “Popeye Moshe Dayan” and the most famous one “Super-Golda.” Just for fun, he caught the spirit of the Four Sons, portraying them as the Marx Brothers.
Keeping Groucho and his siblings in his computer, Dick created The Richard Codor Joyous Haggada (Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Haggadahs-R-Us) which has sold very well through the years.
We have many ways to observe Hanukkah, and the Codor menorahs will make us all smile.