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Hanukkah in America

Hanukkah in America: A History

Dianne Ashton
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 350
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  • Book Info
    Hanukkah in America
    Book Description:

    In New Orleans, Hanukkah means decorating your door with a menorah made of hominy grits. Latkes in Texas are seasoned with cilantro and cayenne pepper. Children in Cincinnati sing Hanukkah songs and eat oranges and ice cream. While each tradition springs from its own unique set of cultural references, what ties them together is that they all celebrate a holiday that is different in America than it is any place else. For the past two hundred years, American Jews have been transforming the ancient holiday of Hanukkah from a simple occasion into something grand. Each year, as they retell its story and enact its customs, they bring their ever-changing perspectives and desires to its celebration. Providing an attractive alternative to the Christian dominated December, rabbis and lay people alike have addressed contemporary hopes by fashioning an authentically Jewish festival that blossomed in their American world.The ways in which Hanukkah was reshaped by American Jews reveals the changing goals and values that emerged among different contingents each December as they confronted the reality of living as a religious minority in the United States. Bringing together clergy and laity, artists and businessmen, teachers, parents, and children, Hanukkah has been a dynamic force for both stability and change in American Jewish life. The holiday's distinctive transformation from a minor festival to a major occasion that looms large in the American Jewish psyche is a marker of American Jewish life. Drawing on a varied archive of songs, plays, liturgy, sermons, and a range of illustrative material, as well as developing portraits of various communities, congregations, and rabbis,Hanukkah in Americareveals how an almost forgotten festival became the most visible of American Jewish holidays.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-1971-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    One December evening when I was five years old, my mother helped me dress for a special occasion. She chose my turquoise satin blouse and black felt skirt decorated with big turquoise cabbage roses. It was the fifties. Mom smiled as I traded my play clothes for the outfit she had laid out, but, curiously, she remained in the same blouse and slacks she had worn all day. I alone prepared to be the center of attention. Suitably dressed and coiffed, I went off to — our living room!

    There, my father had set up a tripod — huge, it...

  4. 1 What Is Hanukkah?
    (pp. 15-38)

    Hanukkah has always had something of a protean character. It emerged in the ancient world in a conflict between Judeans and one of their conquerors (except for roughly eighty years between 142 and 63 B.C.E., foreign powers controlled Judea from 586 B.C.E. through 70 C.E.), as well as among Jews themselves. The primary documents that tell us about Hanukkah’s origin were written perhaps generations after the event, and “legends seem to be inextricably interwoven with historical traditions.”¹ They also reflect the interests of their different, anonymous, authors. One document, written about 100 B.C.E., describes Hanukkah originating amid the rebuilding and...

  5. 2 Modern Maccabees
    (pp. 39-73)

    Sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century, Hanukkah began to evolve from an often neglected occasion in the Jewish calendar to one deemed particularly relevant for American Jews. Surprisingly, it did not begin with a new emphasis on actually celebrating the holiday but with new interest in the Maccabees themselves. Their image became a recurring trope in heated debates about how Jewish life could thrive in the new land. Competing factions vied for religious leadership of the country’s Jews, and each sought the legitimacy of the past by claiming the mantle of the Maccabees, whose powerful family, the Hasmoneans,...

  6. 3 Children Light Up
    (pp. 74-104)

    Reforming rabbis portrayed themselves as Maccabees in order to marshal American Jews to their new approach to Judaism, but, despite that martial imagery, they also sought innovative ways for Jewish children to learn about and participate in Jewish practices that would fit the larger goals of the new movement. For most of the century, reformers focused largely on the synagogue, streamlining and reshaping its worship to attract adults who might have little time to spend there. By making the rabbi’s sermon a centerpiece, each Reform worship service also became an occasion for educating Jews in their faith according to the...

  7. 4 Remade in America
    (pp. 105-137)

    In the forty-three short years between 1881 and 1924, the American Jewish world underwent a transformation. Nineteenth-century rabbis who touted Maccabean heroism and who, along with religious-school teachers, organized Hanukkah festivals for their youngsters, and the young men inKeyam Dishmayawho aimed for a broader revival of Jewish religion and commitment watched a vastly larger new group of Jews change the shape and the culture of Jewish life in the United States. In 1880, American Jewry counted roughly 250,000 souls, most of whom traced their heritage to the Germanic areas of central Europe. By the time the U.S. government...

  8. 5 Homegrown Heroism
    (pp. 138-184)

    In the decades between 1924, when the U.S. Congress restricted immigration, and 1945, when the Allies defeated Nazism in World War II, American Jews began to tell Hanukkah’s story of Jewish victory and divine rescue in a different way than they had in the past. In original plays, in the correspondence of women’s organizations, in sermons, in advice manuals, and in songs, American Jews approached Hanukkah with new urgency and experimented with new ways to think about its meaning in this more dangerous time. Their worries about their children and their own futures in America replaced the concerns of earlier...

  9. 6 Forging a Common Tradition
    (pp. 185-228)

    In the two decades after World War II, Jews, like other Americans, joined religious congregations in increasing numbers. As new congregations sprouted in postwar suburbs, rabbis’ messages reached more people and women’s organizations linked to congregations saw their numbers mushroom. In the 1950s, synagogues — often in suburbs — became the communal centers of Jewish life. They benefited from the national rush to join organizations that continued from the postwar years through the 1960s. Indeed, membership in groups of all kinds, from religious associations to bowling leagues, marked that era of American history.¹ When television’s three major national broadcast networks...

  10. 7 Hippies, Hasidim, and Havurot
    (pp. 229-263)

    The sixties’ political and social upheavals set the stage for different religious values and practices to emerge toward the century’s end. Critiques of American society that developed with the civil rights and anti – Vietnam War movements posed significant challenges to the country’s sense of a social, political, and legal status quo. New immigration laws enacted during the decade meant that by the year 2000, fifty-six million Americans were either foreign-born or had one foreign-born parent, constituting twenty percent of the U.S. population. Most came from either East Asia or Latin America, bringing new cultures and religions to the country.¹...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 264-278)

    As the twenty-first century opened, American Jews once again found in Hanukkah’s story a way to apply the consoling language of faith while facing new threats to their existence. For more than a century and a half, Hanukkah’s account of dangerous foreigners, assimilating traitors, loyal martyrs, and faithful heroes provided a way to talk about dangers to Jewish life that might lurk beneath a benign experience of life in the United States. Nineteenth-century rabbis who debated what Judaism needed to do in order to survive in America used that story to clarify and promote their own fitness for leading the...

    (pp. 279-282)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 283-334)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 335-342)
    (pp. 343-343)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 344-344)