Hanukkah celebrations in Georgia

Descriptions of the observance of Hanukkah in Georgia in the 19th and 20th centuries.

FITZGERALD HEBREW Congregation Synagogue building, Fitzgerald, Georgia; dedicated on June 25, 1942. (photo credit: FITZGERALD HEBREW CONGREGATION)
FITZGERALD HEBREW Congregation Synagogue building, Fitzgerald, Georgia; dedicated on June 25, 1942.
(photo credit: FITZGERALD HEBREW CONGREGATION)
During the past few weeks since the American elections, my home state of Georgia has been in the news because of the challenge to the “legitimacy” of the vote. Finally the count has ended and Joe Biden has triumphed. I don’t recall any recounts of votes in Georgia ever happening in my years living there because the Talmdage machine of the Democratic Party controlled the elections.
Voting aside, I want to recount descriptions of the observance of Hanukkah in Georgia in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Oy Hanukkah - Oy Hanukkah – a yontif – a sheyne.” This song in Yiddish about “a beautiful holiday” was the joyful way in which Hanukkah was introduced to us – we Jews of Georgia in our 70s and 80s. Along with our parents, our bubbies and zadies carried the mama loshen (the familiar Yiddish tongue) into the cities and towns and even villages of Georgia. They also possessed, personally, the spirit of Hanukkah, which they had imbibed as little children, and were able to recreate it annually in a simple or elaborate fashion. We recall the taste of their potato latkes made from the newly purchased spuds, which were scraped into the fresh flour to be used for frying. Where I lived we never had sufganiot; they are a sweet part of my Israel Hanukkah for the past four decades we have lived here.
When the immigration of Jews to the USA was quite large right after World War I, various American Jewish organizations and wealthy individuals set up small factories to make Jewish objects. By so doing, many unemployed Jews were given jobs. A favorite product was the bronze hanukkia. There are a multitude of them all over the world; eBay sells them all the time. They can provide you with a Hanukkah a sheine un frelichen yom tov – a lovely, lively holiday – as they have for many generations. For the Jewish soldiers in World War II, the Jewish Welfare Board provided tin hanukkiot. Here in Israel and in the USA, they are still made so the poor can have their own too. I buy several each year so I can give them to those who are hanukkia-less.
HANUKKAH WAS and is the main at-home holiday and does not have all the ritual restrictions that a Seder does. Growing up, we bought the candles, or they were sent to us, took out the family hanukkia and some dreidels, and we were ready for fun. Our candles, a sample shown here, were not the Israeli candles or the fashion design candles of today. They were orange and they burned for a long time. The noted collector of American Judaica, Peter Schweitzer, put it this way: “Those orange candles were all made in the New York area from World War I on. They were molded from a large amount of wax and orange dye and burned a long time, which is what people wanted.”
Devera Goodman, a contemporary of mine, wrote to me about the Hanukkahs of her youth. She and her family lived in Ocilla, Georgia, in the middle of the state. During the holiday, they traveled the 40 kilometers to Fitzgerald, Georgia, where a small beautifully crafted synagogue was located.
“The Fitzgerald Hebrew Congregation,” she wrote, “did have Hanukkah celebrations. We had a hanukkia at home, lit candles, got gifts some nights. Our Grandmother Harris (matriarch of a great clan of Southern Jews) gave us gelt. We enjoyed latkes with applesauce and we had wooden dreidels that I played with my cousins in a very exciting manner.” From the 1920s on, an important facet of the festival was gift-giving for Hanukkah, compared to Christmas gift-giving. Don’t know how boastful Jewish youngsters are today, but in my day, we made our Christian friends and classmates recognize that we received eight gifts – one for each night of Hanukkah. The size of the gift did not matter. Eight gifts were presented to us and were we happy!
Living in a Christian world, the melodies in our public schools prior to December 25 were only Christmas carols. In 1946, after my father returned from six years in the US Army, I was enrolled at James L. Key Elementary School on the south side of Atlanta. There were only three Jewish students in my class. For several weeks before Christmas, we had regular assemblies where the carols were sung. I’m not sure how other Jews felt, but I did not know what to do about the “Jesus” word. My parents, Anna and Louis, had grown up in Norfolk, Virginia, and in Atlanta, Georgia, in the same type of public schools with the same Christmas carols. They wasted no time in allaying my anxiety.
“David, sing the Christmas carols loud and clear, but never say that word.”
Attorney Ivan Millender grew up in north Georgia in Dalton, a city notable as one of the largest carpet producers of the USA. Recently, he wrote me:
“We always put on a play for Hanukkah. The shul gave the families candles that were orange and burned a long time. There were Christmas songs sung in the school. My parents said to sing the secular ones like ‘Jingle Bells’ and omit the others. We had no Hanukkah decorations in our home on purpose; dad said it was goyishe. A friend of mine refers to Christmas decorations as ‘goyishe garnish.’” He has a very good memory about Dalton Jews.
“As far as I know, there was only one Jewish family in our city who had a Christmas tree – no outside garnish. Ironically, they were very active in the congregation. Their son is very active in Jewish affairs today, attends shaharit regularly and puts on tefillin.” RETURNING TO the 19th century, let’s first look at Savannah, Georgia. On Hanukkah in 1874, The Savannah Morning News treated the holiday quite nicely:
“Chanukah commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians. With praise and thanksgiving, the Jewish champions marched into their Temple, which had been defiled. They banished the heathen priests who brought idol worship to the sacred site. They renewed the service to God. The holiday starts tomorrow night when the local Jews begin lighting candles for eight nights.” The Maccabees were quite impressive soldiers. Their victories were known to the general population through the Apochrypha texts that the Christians studied. In Columbus Georgia, a newspaper item from 1883 explained how Hanukkah was celebrated.
“The festival has been commemorated by the lighting of wax tapers or candles beginning with one taper the first evening and adding one each consecutive night till the last when eight tapers are lighted.”
The Columbus newspaper from December 1886 caught the excitement of Hanukkah:
“This is no holiday,” the article began, “but days commemorative of the heroic conquest of the Maccabean forces over Syrian-Grecian army. It is celebrated by Israelites as a day of gladness and thanksgiving for God’s protection. The sermon Friday night is ‘Feast of Lights – Emblematic of Victory.’” In Macon Georgia, with a little over 350 Jews and two congregations in 1896, the announcement in the newspaper was short and terse, directed to a growing group in the community.
“The Orthodox will have the Hanukkah celebration over King’s drugstore on Friday night.”
Ten years later, in Atlanta, on December 15, 1906, The Atlanta Georgian carried an interesting story about the one Orthodox congregation in the city:
“Hanukkah, so called, or the Feast of Lights, will be celebrated by the Orthodox Jews of the city at the synagogue Ahavat Achim, at the corner of Piedmont and Gilmer. The celebration will be under the auspices of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association and the Ahavath Zion Society (Atlanta Zionist organization). A comprehensive program of music, recitations and speeches, in which some of the best Jewish talent of the city will take prominent part, has been arranged.” The YMHA of Atlanta, formed earlier in 1906, ultimately became the Jewish Educational Alliance, whose building on Capitol Avenue was dedicated in March 1911 and continually used into the 1950s.
FITZGERALD HEBREW Congregation Synagogue buildingFITZGERALD HEBREW Congregation Synagogue building
LET US move to south Georgia near the Albany and Valdosta area to a city-town named Thomasville. In 1920 there was a synagogue, B’nai Israel, with a local Jewish population of 340. The story in the paper about Hanukkah on December 9, 1920 demonstrates what Prof. Beth Wenger of the University of Pennsylvania has proven – that Jewish holidays in USA, at times, are patriotic exercises as well: “The local Jews are preparing for their Festival of Lights. Called Chanukah, the word means ‘courage.’ The synagogue was draped in the Jewish national colors of blue and white. The Star Spangled Banner was proudly flown.”
Now to the program, very poignant as you will note.
“The first rendition was ‘America.’ The second rendition was ‘Hatikva.’ Then ‘Eli Eli’ was sung by Anna Kolesky, accompanied by Rosales Rosenberg. Now the strains of ‘Hatikva’ were played very softly. Joseph Feinberg marched in carrying the American flag. Joseph Kolesky came in with the blue and white flag. Over 100 people attended the event, concluding with the lighting of the Chanukah candlelabra.” With pomp and ceremony both the United States and the Dream of Zion were honored joyfully. It was 1920; World War I was over. The Balfour Declaration emphasized the future creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. This was Thomasville, Georgia, where in 1862, during the Civil War, the leading local merchants wanted to expel the three Jews who owned stores. Now, we can proudly recall, a century later, their ardent patriotism for the land where they lived and the land they hoped to have.
On to The Southern Israelite of Atlanta, December 20, 1935. Fourteen Hanukkah activities listed in a vertical column – one after the other at The Temple; Or Veshalom; AA; Shearith Israel; Anshe Sfard; and Adath Yeshurun (forerunner of noted Orthodox congregation Beth Jacob).
A theme woven through part of the Hanukkah celebrations was the 75th birthday of Henrietta Szold. At the “big shul” a special Hanukkah assembly was to feature a brief movie on Palestine and a tribute to Henrietta Szold. During the holiday, senior Hadassah members would honor the organization’s founder at the Progressive Club, the membership club for Jews other than the Reform. An international radio broadcast featuring accolades for Szold by Chaim Weizman, Dr. Judah Magnes and Rabbi Stephen Wise was played at all the synagogues.
The local rabbis spoke about the valor during Hanukkah and the persecutions of the Nazis. There was a report of the “candy pulling” for the kids in each religious school. My uncle, Rabbi Samuel Geffen, taught the Tushia Bible Class at Shearith Israel and emphasized the warrior, Judah Maccabee. When I read the 1935 highlights described in The Southern Israelite, they are as real in my imagination as when they occurred.
OUR HOLIDAY of candle-lighting, playing dreidel and eating potato latkes has become, in all the polls taken, the most-observed holiday in the American Jewish community. Even the United States Postal Service (“snail mail” in today’s jargon) recognized this annual celebration by issuing a Hanukkah stamp.
What more could United States Jewry hope to receive as its personal present?