So why, in America, has Hanukkah taken on outsized significance? Because it serves a particular purpose: an opportunity to negotiate the twin, competing pressures of ethnic tension and assimilation. As the Rowan University historian Dianne Ashton writes in her book, Hanukkah in America, “Hanukkah’s strongest American advocates seem to have been those who felt the complexities of American Jewish life most acutely.” It’s so simple, so conveniently vague, that it has been used by rabbis, advertisers, Zionists, Hebrew school teachers, and parents to promote everything from ethnic pride and nationalism to engagement in Jewish life and buying stuff.
No doubt, Hanukkah is an incredibly important part of the story of Jews in America. Why, then, is this holiday—the most public Jewish celebration in the United States—so silly?
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Like much of Jewish American life, Hanukkah’s evolution in the U.S. is a story of immigrants. In the 19th century, the Jewish population in the United States was very small—roughly 250,000 by 1880, Ashton estimates. As different groups of immigrant Jews came to the country from central and Eastern Europe, a debate emerged: “What is going to be the form of Judaism that will thrive in the United States?” Ashton said. Many of the institutions of Jewish life, such as schools and synagogues, were in Europe; coming to America was starting over, and in a very new context. “Freedom of religion was a shocking experience,” she said. “Jews had not encountered that before.”
In the middle of the 19th century, some of the first Jews to promote Hanukkah in America were the rabbis who led the Reform Movement, which was largely based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Their Judaism was intellectual and sermon-heavy—“it really had nothing for the kids,” Ashton said. So “they came up with this idea of a synagogue festival for kids at Hanukkah as a way to interest kids in the synagogue: candle-lighting, singing songs, teaching the kids little skits, and then treating them to oranges and ice cream.”
During this period in American history, Hanukkah wasn’t really celebrated in the home beyond the lighting of the menorah, Ashton said, but it did have certain domestic qualities. “The rabbis would stand up in the front [of the synagogue] and talk to the kids, but the women organized the kids, and fed the kids, and taught the kids the songs,” she said. This, in itself, was another way of reinforcing synagogue life, creating a role for women in promoting children’s education.
This was in keeping with a larger trend in American culture: a sentimental Victorian fascination with domesticity. A number of home-based festivals, such as birthday parties, emerged in the second half of the 19th century, and Hanukkah crept toward the home along similar lines. One of the Cincinnati rabbis, Isaac Mayer Wise, purposefully played into this. Over the course of 39 weeks around 1860, he serialized a romance novel based on the story of the Maccabees, playing into Victorian tropes like “religious virtues, patriotism, and strong gender distinctions,” Ashton writes. This was a way of educating Jews about Hanukkah, but it was also a form of reassurance: Yes, Jews could be part of American culture.
More Info: theatlantic.com