Passengers riding the elevated train through the Lower East Side on a December night in the 1890’s would have seen hundreds of tiny candles illuminating the windows of tenement apartments inhabited by Eastern European Jews. The United States was a new world for these immigrants, and along with it came a new Hanukkah.
The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, an eight day festival of light, commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks over 2,000 years ago. Throughout most of its history and even today in many Jewish communities across the world, Hanukkah is a rather minor holiday. But here in the United States, it is a major part of the American Holiday season. So how did Hanukkah become such a big deal in America?
A menorah lighting at Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan. 1977.
Rowan University American Studies professor Diane Ashton recently answered that question in an interview for NPR about her book Hanukkah in America. In the 1800’s, Hanukkah was a very modest occasion – there is almost no record of people celebrating the feast. This of course does not mean that people did not celebrate it at all, but it does mean that the major emphasis was on other holidays.
The Young Men's Hebrew Association's Hanukkah celebration on December 16th, 1880. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
In the late 19th century, the major forces of urbanization, industrialization, modernization, migration, and immigration unsettled the American population and changed attitudes towards winter holidays forever. Both Hanukkah and Christmas were boosted by the theory that sentimental home celebrations would stabilize the troubled American public. It’s no coincidence that at the same time, American manufacturers were marketing and selling consumer goods at a greater volume than ever before, and the emerging middle class was eager to showcase their wealth through their buying power.
First World War soldiers celebrate Hanukkah on the Eastern Front. Photo courtesy of the Center for Jewish History http://www.cjh.org/.
However, the real boom for Hanukkah originated in Cincinnati Ohio, where two Reform rabbis noticed that Jewish children weren’t connecting to their synagogue. The rabbis developed a Hanukkah celebration for children, complete with the giving of presents (a sure-fire way to get kids interested) and publicized it in their national newspapers. Soon, Jewish communities across the country were celebrating Hanukkah with gift giving and a focus on children.
More generally, Hanukkah offered an opportunity for many Jewish immigrants to openly celebrate their religion—something that wasn’t always possible in their countries of origin. This new found freedom, coupled with Hanukkah’s proximity to American Christmas celebrations, helped boost its popularity overall.
The menorah in Grand Army Plaza today. This menorah is the world's largest - 32 feet high and 4,000 pounds!
Today, Hanukkah is celebrated all across the country—it’s even observed at the White House!
From our family to yours, here’s to a joyous festival of light!