Hanukkah’s History? Perhaps Not What You Thought

Being Jewish during the holidays can be confusing for everyone. This card available in our Museum shop might be just the thing.

With the holiday season comes holiday cheer…  for some.  Every year among those happily tuning in to holiday stations, are those who grumble and Grinch. Let’s classify them as two separate groups of people: those who have no love of life or cheer( this type of person has been in business since long before the Dickensian model,  Scrooge, debuted in 1843), and those who insist that Christmas used to be nice but “now is so commercialized that they start advertising before the Halloween candy is out of the CVS.”

Then there is the special subset of people whose grumbling also extends to Hanukkah.

My parents joined the national effort of Jewish parents everywhere, trying to create a Hanukkah which was festive enough to be special rather than substitutional. They did a great job, but when I reached adulthood the efforts understandably fell off, and I’ve long since joined the churlish ranks of folks who feel the holidays are a marketing ploy- Hanukkah especially.

Just a touch of research however was enough to reveal that I am both undeniably right and completely wrong.   In the calendar of Jewish holidays, Hanukkah long played a minor role. The tale however is a good one. Jewish warriors, the Macabees, fought against Hellenistic forces for the right to continue to practice their religion. It is said that when the Macabees regained the Temple, it looked like the sacred light only had enough oil to burn for one night, but that in fact the lamp burned for eight.

The Obamas honor Hanukkah in a White House celebration in 2011. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Daily Forward.

So how did this obscure tale of military success and oil shortage transition to a menorah on the White House lawn? It did begin with Christmas but not the way you think.

Christmas wasn’t always the festive holiday we celebrate today.  David Greenberg has even reported  that the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts applied a fine for ‘celebrating’ Christmas (they were the 1st kind of Scrooge).  However, a rise in fortunes after the Civil War (for some) and an influx of German immigrants who brought holiday traditions, created the intersection of wealth and a festive way to spend it. Slowly Christmas trees, parties, and gift-giving became a nationwide tradition.

Christmas celebrations in the United States may be younger than you thought - not younger than it's major enthusiasts of course. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

According to National Public Radio,  Reform Jewish Rabbis in Cincinnati in the second half of the 19th century were the first to realize the potential of this new winter holiday for Jews. Finding that the children of their congregations didn’t have much interaction with the synagogue, these Rabbis introduced Hanukkah as primarily a child’s festival.  The same NPR story also suggests that enthusiasm for the new Jewish festival increased again with the influx of Eastern European Jews to America after 1880. These Jews were often fleeing religious persecution and happily took this new opportunity to celebrate their religion without backlash.

So spin those dreidels or sing those carols – either way, you are participating in an American version of an ancient and complicated religion. Why not deck the halls or light the lights?

– Posted by Julia Berick

Winning Shots: Photography and Tips from our Snapshot Event

On December 5th we opened our doors to visitors, and their cameras, for Snapshot, a special evening event in which guests were given free range to break our strict “no photography” policy.  Visitors were invited to share their pictures and enter them into a contest on social media using #tenementsnaps. We called on friends from the New York Public Library and from The New Museum, as well as our own Vice President of Marketing and Communications to judge the winners. Emily Whetstone won 1st place scoring herself and 14 of her friends a free tour of the Tenement.

Emily Whetstone's winning photograph.

Shou-ping Yu won second place with a $50 gift certificate to the Museum Shop.

Shou-ping Yu 's lovely second place shot.

Rachel Aherin’s timeless staircase photo was awarded 3rd place. Rachel will receieve a book bundle from the Mueseum shop, curated by our shop buyers.

Rachel Ahrin's great Tenenement Snap.

With all these beautiful photographs floating around we got curious about the tricks of the trade. We turned to Tod Seelie, the Gothamist photographer who took his own beautiful shots while reporting on the event.  Tod let us ask him a few questions about what makes for a great photograph in hard to capture spaces.  Take notes!

When shooting in a small space like the Tenement Museum (or any new York apartment) what’s the are there some good cheats and tricks to getting a wide angle?

– I don’t know if there are any “cheats” to getting a wide angle other than having a wide lens. That said, having a wide lens IS the trick for shooting in tight spaces like the Tenement Museum.

Part of the fun of being in the Tenement Museum at night is the low-light. Is there something you try to remember when you are shooting at night or in a dark place?

– When shooting in a space with ambient lighting at night, you have to be careful to make sure you get a balanced exposure. Be careful not to blow out your highlights (light sources) too much, but don’t let your shadows all slip into total black either. Usually I blow out the light source a bit, and then try to work on the shadows in post.

For us amateur photographers flash can sometimes back fire. What’s a common mistake you think people make when using flash?

– I’m not a big fan of flash when shooting environments because my goal is to try to capture what it is actually like to be there, which includes how the ambient lighting looks. If you’re going to use flash I would say to try and be creative with it, and not just blast everything straight ahead. Angle your flash in a different direction, or try using some sort of diffusion to soften it’s look. Try to make it hard to tell if flash was used or not.

Shooting pictures with an iphone must be totally different than using the cameras you use for work. Is there something you really love about the limitations of a phone camera? Something you really hate? Or do you try to avoid using them?

– There’s not much I love about shooting with a phone, aside from the fact that people in public don’t react the same way as they would if you were using a camera. I enjoy that because it can allow me to be more subtle in situations where a camera might be too obtrusive. Other than that, I tend to use my camera phone like most people, just to snap little fun images to share on Instagram. If I’m actually interested in something visually, I will use my camera. When I was photographing at the Tenement Museum, I was so focused on figuring out the space and how to shoot it that I never thought to take out my phone once, I was totally in camera-mode.

What surprised you most about shooting in the museum?


–  How dramatically lit the space was at night was unexpected for me. Luckily I had anticipated it being very tight spaces, so I had brought my wide lens with me.

Thanks to Tod, our winners, judges and all our Snapshot guests. We are planning more fun events for the future. Subscribe to our newsletter to get the scoop on upcoming events and promotions from the Tenement Museum.


–Posted by, Julia Berick

A Study in Contradictions: A Tenement Museum Employee Visits Saudi Arabia

How do you imagine Saudi Arabia? Desert? Camels? Oil? Oppressed women? That was what I pictured. Traveling to Saudi felt more foreign than anywhere I have ever been. What would I need? Would I lose my identity and independence when the black abaya covered my body? Would its flowing fabric render me invisible or transform me into a wizard out of Harry Potter? With so many questions and so much to learn, I talked to many people in an effort to ensure that I would be respectful and stay safe. In truth, it was difficult to uncover much information. Some people warned me not to go out of fear of the unknown, while others were thrilled by the opportunity for cultural exchange that attending the National Built Heritage Forum in Abha offered.

Beautiful Saudi Arabia

Upon arrival the debunking of my assumptions began with the location of the forum itself. There is no desert in Abha – or camels for that matter. Located in the Asir region of the country, Abha is mountainous and cool. While I had pictured a singular image of Saudi, I discovered diversity, intelligent women, and lots of color. I struggled to reconcile hearing a veiled woman confidently and articulately share her scholarship and expertise with a separate seated audience. These contradictions to my established Saudi narrative kept pushing through the surface, bringing new puzzles and questions with them.

There was the inherent contradiction of attending a forum dedicated to the investment of built heritage and tourism in a country that does not distribute tourist visas. There were distinctions between heritage sites and museums that I was unaccustomed to and differing ideas regarding the authenticity of place and when it moves from real to echo of Disneyland that left me unsettled. Saudis also seem to place more value on the new and modern, a fundamental difference to my own way of thinking which gives preference to preserving the old prior to rebuilding it anew.
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The Tenement Museum Gift Guide: (because you haven’t finished your holiday shopping yet) Part Two

Brooklyn Wash Bag $24.99

You know who she is: that lady in your life who always knows where to brunch and who is able to use the word “repurposed” correctly.  It may be a little intimidating to get her a holiday gift, but she’s guaranteed to like this storage bag with its imaginative mash-up of deco and Brooklyn motifs.


Magic Fire Sticks $19.99

Forget chestnuts! These magic fire sticks will bring merriment to any fireside. Toss them (carefully) in to your roaring hearth, and watch the blaze burn a rainbow of colors. Fireplace sold separately.

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Honoring a Grandparent’s American Journey: Our Shared Journeys Program

Long-time Tenement Museum supporter Marilyn Machlowitz wanted to honor her grandmother’s extraordinary journey from Russia to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Dr. Machlowitz asked Museum staff about opportunities to support the Museum and celebrate her grandmother, Ida Gorelick Levin, in a meaningful way.

Ida Gorelick came to the United States as a teenager, alone, passing through Antwerp and sailing to America on the Red Star Line. She settled on the Lower East Side and found work in a garment factory, saving enough money over the next few years to send for her mother and brother.

Ida Gorelick Levin, 1906

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Tenement Museum Gift Guide for Holiday 2014

The Little Book Of Jewish Celebrations $18.95

With all the sparkle and shine of the holiday season, we can sometimes forget some of the details, origins, and responsibilities of holidays we’re celebrating. This sophisticated little book could be the perfect reminder for you or someone important.

Tea Leaf Reading Kit $12.99

If you know someone who thinks a message from the great beyond is the same as a message from OkCupid, you’ve come to the right place. Because good old-fashioned superstitions are what we’re missing today, bring home this Tea-Leaf Reading Kit and reach out to something off the grid.

Letters to my Future Self $14.95

They say hindsight is 20/20 but don’t underestimate foresight. These adorable “letters to my future self” are a sweet way of forecasting  the future while finding out what is meaningful in the present tense. The gift  keeps giving long into the future; when the message is opened up years from now everyone will have fun remembering good times, trials, and that bagel place that was gone too soon.

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Giving Thanks Across the Aisle

A match your bubbie would approve of: challah and pastrami stuffing.

Last year on Thanksgiving, American Jews were giving thanks for a little something extra – Hanukkah! For my family, Hanukkah has been more about sharing flavors than exchanging favors so what better gift than the incorporation of horseradish into mashed potatoes or rye flour into our pie crust. Hannu-Giving was a magic moment and over too soon. However this year I couldn’t resist bringing the collaboration back to the table. Continue reading

Statistics vs. Stories

Visiting the Schneiders' graves in the 21st century.

SPOILER ALERT: On the Tenement Museum’s Shop Life tour, we describe how Caroline Schneider, co-owner with her husband of a German-American lager saloon at 97 Orchard, died of tuberculosis at the age of 50. Sometimes a visitor asks, “What was life expectancy back then?” I get it. They want to know if dying at 50 was such a bad thing. Maybe she was considered lucky to last so long.

As it turns out, answering this visitor’s question is harder than it may seem. According to the Mapping History Project at the University of Oregon , average life expectancy in the United States in 1885 – the year Caroline died – was about 42 years. So Caroline was lucky to live to 50!

But there’s more than one way to measure life expectancy. Men and women typically have different life expectancies, as the Mapping History Project website makes clear. Then as now, women typically lived longer.

The nuance doesn’t end there. “Average life expectancy” can be calculated from birth or from later in one’s life. If you calculate average life expectancy from birth, all those babies who died of communicable diseases such as diphtheria and measles weigh down the average. If we visit the Mapping History Project website again and choose to calculate average life expectancy from age 5 – that is, average life expectancy for those Americans who lived to their 5th birthday – the number is quite different. For girls who survived to age 5 in 1885, average life expectancy was 55 years – 13 years longer than if we calculate average life expectancy from birth! Continue reading

Visitor(s) of the Month: November 2014

Meet Danielle Steinmann (center of photo) and a small horde of her wonderful colleagues from The Trustees of Reservations

On Thursdays, the Tenement Museum’s visitor center stays open until 8:30pm; visitors are serenaded with music playing over the loudspeakers, and the museum takes on a somewhat enchanted ambience. On Late Night Thursday, the visitor center staff have an opportunity to spend a little more time getting to know visitors and speak about what drew them to an after-hours tour of the Tenement Museum.

During the first Late Night Thursday of November, we caught up with members of The Trustees of Reservations, an organization that has built a sterling reputation through over 100 years of hard work caring for more than 100 special places, including historic houses and scenic sites that span nearly 25,000 acres all across the state of Massachusetts. The group had just returned from the day’s last Shop Life tour. We were able to speak for a while with Danielle Steinmann, the group’s Director of Visitor Interpretation, while her colleagues dined at nearby Russ & Daughters Cafe. Continue reading

New York: Delivered

The Tenement Museum is the center of our universe, but not everybody is lucky enough to visit the Tenement Museum every day.  We are proud to have visitors from all over the world. Perhaps you are one such visitor. So you’ve visited us on the Lower East Side, you met Victoria, and you learned the history of the neighborhood with a walking tour. Then you’ve waited in a really, really long line at Magnolia Bakery, you’ve waited in an even longer line to see the Matisse Cut-Outs exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, and then you waited in a line that put them both to shame in security at LaGuardia Airport. You are finally on the plane, saddened to have left the Big Apple, but relieved to have made it to your seat when you realize….


No matter what you wanted from the Museum Shop – no matter if you live in Palo Alto or in Harlem – the new, improved online store is here to help.

Here are four of our shop essentials for all New Yorkers:

The “Dear New York, I love you.” onesie


The onesie that says it all- from the Tenement Museum Shop.

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