Book Review: Hanukkah in America: A History by Dianne Ashton

Hanukkah in America: A HistoryHanukkah in America: A History by Dianne Ashton
Publisher: NYU Press
Release Date: October 14, 2014
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

Don’t let the fact that Hanukkah in America is published by an academic press scare you off. It’s a very readable book about the history of Hanukkah and how it evolved from a minor Jewish holiday into the holiday that most non-Jews think is the holiest of all the Jewish holidays.

I happened to already know that Hanukkah is a minor holiday but I wasn’t aware of how it became the elaborately celebrated holiday that is today. This book explains in detail how Hanukkah has grown and changed over the last century to deal with what has become known as the December Dilemma. As the author of one Hanukkah guide mentioned in this book observed, “Christmas heightens one’s awareness of one’s Jewishness almost as much as any single Jewish holiday.” Because Jewish children felt left out of the fun and merriment of Christmas, Jewish leaders tried various things to make Hanukkah more fun for them so that the children’s families wouldn’t feel the need to erect a Christmas tree as some of them had been doing. On example is that a Kansas City chapter of the NFTS (National Foundation of Temple Sisterhoods) printed directions for a Hanukkah party complete with food, games, costumes and more.

Whenever a book I read mentions Unitarians, I feel compelled to point it out since it is such a rare occurrence for us. In this case, the book explains that Reform Rabbi set up Christmas-Hanukkah meeting between his Temple Youth League and the teens of the local Unitarian church because “that very liberal Christian group could be trusted not to evangelize to the Jewish youngsters.” (Not all Unitarians are Christians but I understand the point.)

I found Hanukkah in America to be a really interesting, educational book. I think people of all religions could learn a lot from this detailed account of how Hanukkah has become what it is today.

(I received this book courtesy of the publisher.)