Rachel Gordan on Dianne Ashton’s Hanukkah in America: A History
Dianne Ashton’s new history of Hanukkah in America had particular poignance this holiday season. Standing in an Upper West Side Starbucks line in late November, I overheard a young girl wearing ballet slippers tell her friend that there would be no dance class the following week. With all the gravitas of a Yom Kippur sermon, she explained that it was Thanksgivvukkah. Her mother guffawed. “Thanksgivvukkah!” she muttered, as though it were some newfangled, Madison Avenue-engineered, combo-pack of holidays that had as much business joining forces as the birth of Christ and the victory of the Maccabees.
The truth is that Jews have been busy transforming Hanukkah since its inception. There’s a reason — beyond the consistency of latke batter — that Ashton calls it an “easy to mold” holiday. Today, scholars believe that Hanukkah originated as a belated celebration of the harvest festivals of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, delayed until the Maccabees retook the Temple. But the rabbis put their own spin on this holiday’s significance.
Six hundred years after the Maccabean victory, the rabbis explained Hanukkah in the Babylonian Talmud. In the midst of a discussion about lighting Sabbath candles, the rabbis turned to the lighting of Hanukkah candles, and from there to the meaning of the holiday. It was not the Maccabean revolt that the rabbis showcased, but the story of a flask of olive oil that miraculously lasted eight days. Originating in the Talmud, this story affirmed the teaching that Jews avoid inciting rebellion against their political rulers, while foregrounding God’s miraculous power in saving Jewish religious life from a foreign threat — a theme that proved more congenial to the rabbis’ priorities than military might. Like the marketing gurus behind this year’s late November festivities, the rabbis, too, had their own project in mind when they created the Hanukkah celebration. “To extend the spirituality of the Temple into their everyday lives and to maintain biblical law despite living under new circumstances” were goals that could be achieved through a domestic celebration of the holiday.
Hanukkah’s plasticity is among its defining features and the source of its major critiques. Like the child of a second marriage, Hanukkah has always stood apart in the pantheon of Jewish holidays, its membership in the family of Jewish holidays seemingly suspect. Visions of Hanukkah Harrys and Hanukkah bushes make contemporary commentators cringe, but Ashton looks closely at the suspicion that has always surrounded Hanukkah, the youngest of Jewish holidays (excluding Israeli Independence Day and Holocaust Memorial Day).
With no yontif (holiday in which work is prohibited), Hanukkah became a holiday “for children,” a festival trumped-up by the commercialism of the new world, in order to compete with the increasingly aggressively marketed Christmas season. For about as long as Christmas has been a big deal in this country, American Jews have been ramping up Hanukkah festivities.
Christmas and Christianity played a large role in the remodeling of Hanukkah in America. Watching the growing excitement over a post-Civil War American Christmas spurred nineteenth century Jewish religious reformers, such as Isaac Wise and Max Lilienthal, to reimagine how their own December holiday might incorporate America’s Victorian, child-centered religious culture. In 1879, Henrietta Szold wrote in an article in New York’s Jewish Messenger: “Christmas truly fulfills its mission of bringing peace and good will to men. All this and more, Chanuka should be to us.” Her intentions sound noble. They remind us that the American Jewish fascination with Christmas was about more than aping Christian neighbors.
In the twentieth century, the “December dilemma” of whether to celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah increasingly became a marker of Jewish loyalty. Enhancing the holiday served as a bulwark against Christianity’s allure, but as anti-Semitism mounted in the 1920s and 1930s, celebrations of Hanukkah turned inward, as Jews strove to make them more Jewishly meaningful. “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,” Ashton explains. The serious Hanukkah plays she uncovers, written for adult audiences, are a rich source for understanding the anxieties that plagued early twentieth century American Jews. In What Happened on Chanukkah: A Play for Adults (1924), the rabbi-playwright portrays anti-Semitic menaces to Jewish life. The young Jewish man at the center of the plot rejects Judaism and plans to marry the daughter of the head of the local Ku Klux Klan until an anti-Semitic incident awakens him to the importance of Jewish unity.
As World War II raged, Hanukkah became a battlefield for American Jewish identity, and an occasion for American Jews to build the muscle that would resist the majority Christianity culture. According to rabbis and Jewish leaders, sacrifices for the war effort were to be matched by personal sacrifices on behalf of religious commitments. One exasperated rabbi at UCLA fumed in The Reconstructionist that the “same mother who insists upon her child’s eating spinach and washing behind the ears is somehow helpless to oppose his whims in the matter of a Christmas tree.” Hanukkah manuals written by rabbis such as Albert Gordon instructed and praised Jews for making the holiday a memorable family event. No other time of year, it seemed, could test the mettle of a committed American Jew quite like Christmastime. No other time of the year was more in need of a fun-filled, emotionally satisfying Jewish holiday. Jewish leaders sought to make Hanukkah that holiday. Its celebrations were meant to “help Jews to create psychologically supportive, religiously inspiring, and emotionally satisfying celebrations.”
In addition to being a study of Hanukkah in America, Ashton’s book provides a history of the ways that Christmas — beguiling and captivating to the Jewish imagination — has inspired Jews to look anew at their own religious heritage and translate it into an American idiom that might charm Jew and non-Jew alike. Ashton’s study reveals that the interactions between Jews and their American neighbors held the potential for inspiring Jews to reexamine their religious culture and redirect it toward bringing greater joy to American Jewish life. This “Christmas effect” also demonstrates the complicated question of whether an innovation constitutes assimilation or “Jewish renewal.” When was borrowing from the majority culture an act of “selling out,” and when was it a means to finding a more meaningful solution? Jews in America have always wrestled with that dilemma and, perhaps, never more than during Hanukkah.
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