From forgotten stepchild to national celebration

In her newest book, 'Hanukkah in America: A History,' historian Dianne Ashton examines the holiday’s transformation over the years of Jewish life in America.

Bill Clinton White House Hannuka 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Bill Clinton White House Hannuka 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week US President Barack Obama will hold a White House Hanukka party for hundreds of the biggest Jewish movers and shakers in Washington, where he’ll light a hanukkia and serve kosher food to his guests. In addition, each night of the holiday there will be a massive hanukkia lit on the White House grounds.
How did Hanukka go from being one of the most minor celebrations in the Jewish calendar to the widely recognized and celebrated holiday it is today? How did a holiday celebrated by less than 2 percent of the American population became so nationally recognized? In her newest book, Hanukkah in America: A History, historian Dianne Ashton examines the holiday’s transformation over the years of Jewish life in America.
“Over the course of nearly two centuries, various Jews have added their own creations and arguments to make sure the festival would not be overlooked or ignored,” writes Ashton. “By the opening years of the 21st century, it has become a broadly known, public, Jewish American event.”
A large part of that reason, Ashton opines, is its usual concurrence with the flashy holiday of Christmas.
“While Passover, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur hold far more important places in the Jewish religious calendar than does Hanukka,” wrote Ashton, “no occasions in the fall or spring American calendars provoke the December conundrums for American Jews that Hanukka has been able to address through its holiday culture.”
By 1880, there were close to 250,000 Jews in the US, mostly secular, German immigrants who identified with the growing Reform Movement. Yet in their rush to modernize, some religious leaders felt they were leaving too much of Judaism behind.
“Chanukah is entirely neglected in so many of our Jewish families,” wrote Rabbi Max Lilienthal, a leading figure in the Reform Movement, in 1874. In 1905, an editorial in a Yiddish newspaper said Hanukka is “‘like a stepchild’ and likely to be ignored,” wrote Ashton.
In the late 19th century, religious leaders hoped to revitalize the holiday by painting American Jews as modern Maccabees.
They encouraged public celebrations of the holiday, and fancy balls and Hanukka pageants with plays became more popular, with the Maccabees envisioned as Jewish heroes and role models.
But around the turn of the century, when the US was flooded with a new wave of immigrants, mostly Eastern Europeans who were more religiously inclined, Hanukka took on extra significance.
Though the newcomers were more traditional, they were still eager to adjust to their new American lifestyle and culture.
The early 20th century was also the time Christmas in the US took on its greater role and prominence, with an emphasis on gift-giving and Santa Claus as a friendly figure to children.
Rather than take on the Christmas culture (though some Jews did adopt Christmas trees as secular decorations, few were comfortable with the holiday’s religious aspects), Jews embellished their Hanukka celebrations. Candlelighting ceremonies with gifts, songs and holiday fare like latkes and potato or buckwheat pancakes, became the norm.
“For turn-of-the-century immigrants, Hanukka became an occasion to enact their adjustment to American life while, at the same time, performing activities generated by Judaism’s rites and customs,” writes Ashton. “Each Hanukka called forth their literary skills, their political dreams and their enjoyment of American standards of material abundance.”
In the postwar era, the holiday took on additional significance for many Jews, and religious leaders across the spectrum urged their followers to celebrate the holiday in their homes, with their families keeping alive the traditions the Nazis had tried to wipe out.
“The Hanukka lights should inspire us to learn and to study, to work and to live, so that the Judaism which the Maccabees preserved may be preserved by us in these difficult hours,” wrote Rabbi Albert Gordon in 1947.
Rising membership in synagogues and rising enrollment of children in Hebrew schools meant more avenues for celebration were available to American Jews – and their kids, arguably the holiday’s target, were exposed to Hanukka’s rituals. Particularly in New York, with the largest Jewish community, symbols and signs of Hanukka slowly began to creep into the public realm, from Hallmark cards to public ceremonies, Ashton recounts. As American Jews felt more comfortable expressing their religion in public, Chabad began to stage public lightings and gatherings in the 1970s and ’80s – including erecting a hanukkia outside the White House in 1979 – which drew public attention and news coverage from local media.
Jimmy Carter was the first president to attend a public lighting ceremony, Bill Clinton the first to host one in the White House and George W. Bush the first to throw a kosher Hanukka party for hundreds of guests.
Engaging at times and dry at others, Ashton’s book is a well-documented scholarly work. It chronicles not only the evolution of Hanukka in the US but of Jewish life in America as a whole, from the early 19th-century settlers through the influx of 20th-century immigrants to today.
“After nearly two centuries of American Jews finding in Hanukka’s ancient tales the assurance that their own problems will be solved,” writes Ashton, “they are likely to continue to make Hanukka celebrations a significant part of their religious calendars.”