Hanukkah in Amer­i­ca: A History

  • Review
By – November 25, 2013

Hanukkah in Amer­i­ca: A His­to­ry by Dianne Ash­ton opens up the world of Hanukkah in an excit­ing new way. Hanukkah has the dis­tinc­tion of being one of the two least impor­tant fes­ti­vals in the Jew­ish reli­gious cal­en­dar, reports Ash­ton. The oth­er one is Purim. And yet in Amer­i­ca, Hanukkah has tak­en on major sig­nif­i­cance in the Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Start­ing in the 1840s, a wide swath of Amer­i­can Jew­ish inter­est groups took hold of the hol­i­day and shaped it into forms that met their diverse inter­ests. For some the Hanukkah’s sto­ry of mil­i­tary revolt and Mac­cabee hero­ism coun­tered (pre-Israel) stereo­types of phys­i­cal­ly inef­fec­tu­al Jew­ish males inca­pable of mil­i­tary prowess. For oth­ers Hanukkah was seen as a coun­ter­vail­ing force against the seduc­tive­ness of the Christ­mas hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tions and the spread­ing of assim­i­la­tion in Amer­i­ca. What­ev­er the moti­va­tions, by the begin­ning of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, Hanukkah had become a broad­ly, pub­lic, Jew­ish Amer­i­can event,” reports Ashton. 

One of the endur­ing rit­u­als of the hol­i­day is the light­ing of an eight can­dle meno­rah accom­pa­nied by tra­di­tion­al bless­ings. In antiq­ui­ty Jews would cre­ate an array of small oil lamps or use a spe­cial Hanukkah oil lamp with eight wicks. His­to­ri­ans date the use of the first free stand­ing meno­rah with eight can­dles back to Italy in 1470. The meno­rah was mod­eled after the large sev­en-branch meno­rah that stood in the Sec­ond Tem­ple in Jerusalem. When the Mac­cabees wrest­ed the con­trol of the Tem­ple from the Greeks, they reded­i­cat­ed the Tem­ple and lit the meno­rah. The light­ing of Hanukkah’s can­dles com­mem­o­rates that Mac­cabean vic­to­ry and the divine inter­ven­tion of God on behalf of the Jew­ish peo­ple. This pow­er­ful sym­bol was adopt­ed by the Chabad Hasidim in 1974. The Chabad set up their first enor­mous Hanukkah meno­rah in Philadelphia’s Inde­pen­dence Mall, near the Lib­er­ty Bell and invit­ed pub­lic offi­cials to be involved in the can­dle light­ing cer­e­mo­ny. The next year Chabad set up anoth­er one in San Fran­cis­co. Every year after that more and more Chabad giant meno­rahs and pub­lic light­en­ing cer­e­monies sprung up across the coun­try. In 1978, Rebbe Mena­hem M. Schneer­son urged his emis­saries to erect giant Hanukkah lamps around the world as a means of spread­ing the well­springs” of Hasidism. The Chabad Hasidim have made the giant meno­rah an emblem of their move­ment. It is often found in front of their Chabad syn­a­gogues and meet­ing hous­es year long. These giant Chabad meno­rahs and our own fam­i­ly meno­rahs have served to rein­force the sig­nif­i­cance of the fes­ti­val of lights.

I thor­ough­ly enjoyed read­ing Hanukkah in Amer­i­ca: A His­to­ry. I rec­om­mend it to all peo­ple inter­est­ed in Jew­ish cul­tur­al his­to­ry. It is great fun to learn about the var­ied Hanukkah prac­tices and their deriva­tion. After read­ing this book, I am sure many read­ers will rush out to eat latkes, the tra­di­tion­al Amer­i­can Hanukkah food and suf­gan­iot (jel­ly dough­nuts) anoth­er favorite of the hol­i­day. Both foods are made in oil and com­mem­o­rate the mir­a­cle of Tem­ple meno­rah reded­i­ca­tion when one cruse of oil last­ed eight nights instead of only one.

Dianne Ash­ton is pro­fes­sor of reli­gion stud­ies at Rowan Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of four books includ­ing the first mod­ern biog­ra­phy of Rebec­ca Gratz. Ash­ton is the edi­tor of the schol­ar­ly jour­nal Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry. Appen­dix­es, bib­li­og­ra­phy, notes, pho­tos (b & w), illustrations.

Read Dianne Ash­ton’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

What’s New About Hanukkah?

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions