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Hanukkah in America

December 3, 2019


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, Hanukkah is a major part of the American Holiday season. So how did Hanukkah in America become such a big deal?

A menorah lighting at Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan. 1977.

Rowan University American Studies professor Diane Ashton 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.

When Hanukkah Was First Widely Celebrated in America

The real boom for Hanukkah in America originated in the state of Ohio. Two Reform rabbis in Cincinnati, Ohio 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. This would go on to redefine Hanukkah traditions in America.

More generally, Hanukkah in America 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 the celebrations’ close proximity to Christmas, helped boost both old and new Hanukkah traditions in America.

The menorah in Grand Army Plaza today. This menorah is the world’s largest – 32 feet high and 4,000 pounds!

Today, Americans celebrate Hanukkah across all states in the country—it’s even observed at the White House!

From our family to yours, here’s to a joyous festival of light!

– Posted by Lib Tietjen