Hanukkah in America

A History

350 pages

30 halftones illustrations

October, 2013

ISBN: 9780814707395

$29.95

Cloth

Also available in

Author

Dianne Ashton is Professor of Religion Studies and former director of the American Studies program at Rowan University. She is the author of four books, including the first modern biography of the American Jewish education trailblazer, Rebecca Gratz (1997), and, with Ellen M. Umansky, the widely read Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality: A Sourcebook (revised 2009).She is currently editor of the scholarly journal, American Jewish History.

All books by Dianne Ashton

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 America reveals how an almost forgotten festival became the most visible of American Jewish holidays.

Reviews

  • "American Jewish History editor Ashton has written a scholarly but accessible guide to the evolution of the Festival of Lights in America. . . Most will be familiar with modern efforts to counter the pervasiveness of Christmas by boosting Hanukkah’s significance, but Ashton’s thorough treatment of her topic is sure to enlighten—she discusses everything from the official observances of Hanukkah at the White House to how the rise of the celebration affected mainstream ad campaigns and the number of opportunities available to Jewish women. It all adds up to powerful support for her thesis that Hanukkah now enjoys 'a more significant place in the American Jewish calendar than it had known' since the events it commemorates."

    STARRED Publishers Weekly

  • "[T]his work shows how Jewish communities used 'an element within Judaism that corresponded to an element of Christianity in order to resist Christianity.'  A fact-filled, mostly interesting account of Hanukkah's development in the United States."

    Kirkus

  • "A successful and accessible history, Ashton's book will appeal to general readers and specialists with an interest in American Jewish history."

    —Matt Rice, Library Journal

  • "Children growing up in 21st-century America are encouraged to think that the December holiday season is an inclusive one, and that Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations carry equal import. Historically and liturgically, however, as many Jewish children learn after their bar or bat mitzvah, Hanukkah is a minor holiday, ginned up to compete with Christmas’s dominance—a quandary known as the 'December dilemma.' Hanukkah’s history was ­manipulated: the celebration of an unlikely military victory of the ­Maccabee-led Judean insurgents against Hellenic rule became a story, spurred on by Talmudic myth, of God’s intervention to make one flask of sacred oil burn for eight nights. Ashton offers readers a lively account of the holiday’s modern iterations. At various points, Hanukkah was a social enticement to join a Jewish congregation, a counterpoint to arguments that Jews were weak and a celebration to bond children to family. Hanukkah reflects both a general Jewish problem and a distinctly American one. On the one hand, it embodies the 'essential project of the rabbis: With the Temple destroyed, they aimed to make it possible for Jews to extend the spirituality of the Temple into their everyday lives.' On the other, for most of the 19th century, 'American Jewish life struggled along on the distant periphery of the Jewish world, an ocean away from the great centers of Jewish learning' and leadership. Celebrating Hanukkah in the home allowed the creation of an American Jewish tradition."

    New York Times

  • “This is a book that’s hard to put down.”

    —Terri Schlichenmeyer, Leader Times

  • Hanukkah in America is a unique work of scholarship and analysis.”

    Jewish Woman

  • “Ashton offers readers a lively account of the holiday’s modern iterations.”

    Anna Altman

  • "In Hanukkah in America, Ashton notes that poverty and scarcity were the experience of most Jews in Europe, but 'abundance, security, and access to new places marked their Americanization. 'Presents' was among the first English words to appear in Yiddish newspapers...By 1906 the Forverts (Jewish Daily Forward) advertised Hanukkah gift objects' for sale in Jewish-owned stores. America itself was associated with prosperity and conspicuous consumption. It logically followed that Hanukkah should reflect this."

    PacificStandard.com

  • "Ashton provides a very thorough cultural history of Chanukah as she traces the holiday's importance to American Jewry."

    The Kentucky Democrat

  • "Again and again...American Jews wove Hanukkah's story into their own contemporary lives in ways that reflected their changing circumstances. Those retellings kept Hanukkah's meaning alive and relevant. They turned the simple holiday rite into an event which, like other well-loved Jewish festivals, drew families together in their own homes where they could tailor the celebration to fit their own tastes in food and decor, and to reflect their own ideas about the holiday's significance."  

    —Dianne Ashton, Jewish Book Council

  • "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."

    —Rachel Gordan, The Marginalia Review of Books

  • "Ashton offers us the most comprehensive history of Hanukkah to date...It would be a joy to find this book nestled under one's Hanukkah bush or in front of the memorah."

    —Lisa Hoelle, Practical Matters

  • "Religiously, Hanukkah is considered a minor Jewish festival. Ashton’s wonderfully readable, fact-packed history demonstrates, however, that in the U.S., Hanukkah isn’t minor at all...[T]he illustrations scattered throughout the text are always pertinent; and Ashton’s evenhandedness most admirable."

    —Ray Olson, STARRED Booklist

  • "Hanukkah, traditionally a minor Jewish festival, grew like a beanstalk in America, becoming one of Judaism’s most widely celebrated holidays. In this definitive history, Dianne Ashton explains how this happened, and what it teaches us about America, about religion, and about Jews."

    —Jonathan D. Sarna, author of American Judaism: A History

  • "More than merely the 'Jewish Christmas,' as it is often mistakenly characterized, Hanukkah's story—as told through Dianne Ashton's sweeping history—is a fascinating window on the evolution of Jewish integration into American society and culture." 

    —Alan M. Kraut, American University