Hanukkah, American Style

The Jewish festival near Christmas gained prominence in the U.S.


Reprinted with permission of the American Jewish Historical Society from “Chapters in American History.” 

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, celebrates the victory, in 164 B. C. E. of armed Jewish rebels led by Judah the Maccabee over the army of the Syrian despot Antiochus IV. Against all odds, the courageous, resourceful, and badly outnumbered Jewish freedom fighters, David-like, slew the Syrian Goliath. Since that day, Jews around the world have marked Hanukkah as a “minor” holiday, not an observance commanded by Scripture but one that is nonetheless traditional.

Hanukkah has allowed Jews who were oppressed or under pressure to assimilate to identify a golden age in which militant, assertive Jews maintained their religious freedom and independence. Lighting candles, playing cards, and gambling with dreidls recall the prowess of the Maccabeans and the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days, a sign that Jews are indeed God’s chosen people.

Proximity to Christmas

For the millions of Jewish immigrants who came to America at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Hanukkah in the New World took on new, ambiguous, and conflicted meanings. Hanukkah’s proximity on the calendar to Christmas posed particular challenges. By the 1890s, Christmas was firmly established as America’s premiere season for gift giving. For many Americans of all faiths, consumerism and general feelings of “good cheer” supplemented, if not replaced, the religious basis for Christmas. The holiday was rapidly becoming a national, rather than purely Christian, tradition.

For Jewish immigrants feeling pressure to shed their European ways, exchanging gifts with neighbors at Christmastime signaled their adaptation to their new home. In 1904, the Forward quoted Jewish Christmas shoppers who, when challenged, asked (in Yiddish), “Who says we haven’t Americanized?” The paper observed, “The purchase of Christmas gifts is one of the first things that proves one is no longer a greenhorn.”

As historian Jenna W. Joselit notes, some Jewish leaders criticized the tendency of immigrant Jews to accept Christmas as an American consumer ritual. Writing in The Menorah in 1890, Rabbi Kaufman Kohler asked, “How can the Jew, without losing self-respect, partake in the joy and festive mirth of Christmas? Can he without self-surrender, without entailing insult and disgrace upon his faith and race, plant the Christmas tree in his household?”

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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