Commentary Magazine

Feel the Maccabeat

Hanukkah in America: A History
By Diane Ashton
New York University Press, 350 pages

On a recent episode of ABC’s half-hour “outer-space aliens in New Jersey just trying to blend in” sitcom, The Neighbors, the titular extraterrestrials decide to create the best fall holiday ever: Challoweenukah. The ensuing complications aren’t strictly relevant. Suffice it to say, the show presents the Jewish half of the holiday mash-up as roughly comparable to the other half—a domestic seasonal festival with opportunities for children’s enjoyment, accompanied by vaguely uplifting messages about solidarity and personal and communal expression.

Dianne Ashton completed writing her new book long before the “Challoweenukah” episode aired, but it would have fit into her book perfectly. Hanukkah in America: A History delivers precisely what its title describes: an outline of the holiday’s changing nature and fortunes throughout the American Jewish experience. In many ways, Ashton persuasively argues, the history of American Hanukkah is the history of the American Jewish experience. The various uses of the holiday, and the development or modification of certain religious traditions, customs, and rhetoric on these shores, have always corresponded precisely to the historical American moment in which they developed and to the way American Jews viewed their position in their new, adopted, or permanent home. Those familiar with the contours of the American Jewish story won’t find much surprising here in the way of grand narrative. But the devil—or in this case, the delight—is in the details.

What makes Hanukkah (which is Ashton’s transliteration—the English spelling variants for the holiday and their significance could have been a chapter in itself) such a perfect choice for this kind of analysis of American Jewish life? The simplicity of the prescribed rites and their comparative lack of associated religious legal obligation mean the holiday has always been comparatively easy to modify. Its story of ancient conflict between Hellenizing Jews (roughly speaking, assimilationists) and traditionalists (also roughly speaking) gives it constant resonance for questions Jews face about accommodating to American culture. And perhaps most important, its position on the calendar led to both the opportunity for blurring cultural boundaries and sharply reestablishing them, in the face of what Rabbi Abraham Karp first termed the “December dilemma” in 1958.

Though the book looks back to the holiday’s roots in antiquity, Ashton’s story really takes off in the mid- to late-19th century (not coincidentally, when American Jewish history really began to gather momentum). This was also a period when Americans were inventing secular national holidays such as Thanksgiving while secularizing Christmas—transforming Santa Claus “from the Christian St. Nicholas to a pudgy shopkeeper with magical powers for gift-giving,” emphasizing family and home-centered customs such as a decorated tree (Franklin Pierce first set up a Christmas tree for his family in the White House in 1856) and gifts for family members, especially children.

These secularizing, commodifying, domesticating changes would be echoed by Jews celebrating Hanukkah, particularly the focus on children. As Sunday schools began to make Christmas more exciting and fun, Jewish religious schools, synagogues, and communal institutions felt they had to keep up. It was thought prudent to use the holiday to create memorable religious experiences for children  so as to avoid “losing” them religiously. Thus, according to Ashton, Jewish gift-giving seems to have become common for the first time in the 1880s, with gifts picked out specially for children (the most favored present: books), a trend that only deepened with the mass Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. Presents was one of the first English words to appear in Yiddish newspapers. The accompanying shift from handing out coins (Hanukkah gelt) to gifts designed specifically to appeal to kids was part of the cultural moment.

These weren’t merely gifts; Ashton felicitously calls the shift a transition to “a Hanukkah filled with objects.” By far, the most diverting and entertaining gift Ashton gives us is the detailed description and tantalizing catalogue of the commodities and entertainments developed for American Jewish consumption in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. There were songs: sheet music, records, Hanukkah concerts. There were new ritual features and objects—after the 1920s came the electric menorahs. Carmel wine was, its ads claimed, “what the Maccabees drank,” while the Eastern European potato pancake became the tasty representation of the oil in the Hanukkah lamps. Celebratory cards came into vogue first as a 1926 product of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, a half century after their Christian counterparts were introduced. And dramatic spectacles were staged: plays for children and adults alike, the grandest with tableaux vivants featuring Maccabees in battle armor and a grand procession complete with more than a hundred young women with cymbals.

It was women, for the most part, who bought the gifts, prepared the menorahs, and cooked the latkes, and who set the domestic stage to make (to use the title of a bestselling 20th-century book) The Jewish Home Beautiful. Ashton, who has written before on Jewish women’s spirituality, is particularly adept at showing the blurred and blurry lines between the centrality of the domestic sphere and the role played by family networks, communal institutions, and religious leaders and opinion-makers. She summons a dazzling variety of characters, from the famous (Isaac Mayer Wise, Mordechai Kaplan, Penina Moise) to the obscure, because everyone used Hanukkah to support his own planks and positions.

Hanukkah, over the course of its American history, has stood for everything. It was a call to Jews to rededicate themselves to their faith (as a holiday of rededication). It was a way to legitimate the reform of traditional Judaism (as the Maccabees had reformed Hellenizing Judaism). It was an occasion to underscore the American Jewish support for American democracy and institutions (the Maccabees as fighters for freedom and liberty). It was a prooftext for Zionists (as it supported Jewish political independence). It was a solace for revolutionaries and socialists (Abraham Cahan claimed Jewish socialists to be “humanity’s Maccabees”). It became a touchstone for the counterculture (1973’s Jewish Catalog invited readers to “forage in the woods to find your own menorah”). And it was a shining opportunity to teach non-Jews about Jews’ contributions to American and Western civilization (in recent Chabad presentations on public space with municipal leaders from the government).

Most recently, it stands, according to Ashton, for an increasing spirituality, religiosity, and American Jewish confidence. But it also stands, to use Justice Brennan’s words in his ruling about displaying religious symbols on public land, as “simply a recognition of cultural diversity,” a symbol largely devoid of religious content. The fact that it can stand for both simultaneously underscores the ever increasing diversity of American Jewish identity and suggests there are more chapters in the story to tell.

Where will Hanukkah go next? If The Neighbors is to be believed, then outer space, perhaps, thus making a classic Mel Brooks fantasy come true. In America, however, the twists and turns will almost certainly follow the guidelines suggested by Ashton, who has given us a useful guide to thinking not only about this holiday, but American Jewish cultural behavior in general.

About the Author

Jeremy Dauber is Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Columbia University.

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