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Hanukkah in America

A History

Dianne Ashton

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-14

One December evening when I was five years old, my mother helped me dress for a special occasion. She chose my turquoise satin blouse and black felt skirt decorated with big turquoise cabbage roses. It was the fifties. Mom smiled as I traded my play clothes for the outfit she had laid out, but, curiously, she remained in the same blouse and slacks she had worn all day. ...

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1. What Is Hanukkah?

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pp. 15-38

Hanukkah has always had something of a protean character. It emerged in the ancient world in a conflict between Judeans and one of their conquerors (except for roughly eighty years between 142 and 63 B.C.E., foreign powers controlled Judea from 586 B.C.E. through 70 C.E.), as well as among Jews themselves. ...

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2. Modern Maccabees

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pp. 39-73

Sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century, Hanukkah began to evolve from an often neglected occasion in the Jewish calendar to one deemed particularly relevant for American Jews. Surprisingly, it did not begin with a new emphasis on actually celebrating the holiday but with new interest in the Maccabees themselves. ...

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3. Children Light Up

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pp. 74-104

Reforming rabbis portrayed themselves as Maccabees in order to marshal American Jews to their new approach to Judaism, but, despite that martial imagery, they also sought innovative ways for Jewish children to learn about and participate in Jewish practices that would fit the larger goals of the new movement. ...

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4. Remade in America

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pp. 105-137

In the forty-three short years between 1881 and 1924, the American Jewish world underwent a transformation. Nineteenth-century rabbis who touted Maccabean heroism and who, along with religious-school teachers, organized Hanukkah festivals for their youngsters, and the young men in Keyam Dishmaya ...

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5. Homegrown Heroism

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pp. 138-184

In the decades between 1924, when the U.S. Congress restricted immigration, and 1945, when the Allies defeated Nazism in World War II, American Jews began to tell Hanukkah’s story of Jewish victory and divine rescue in a different way than they had in the past. ...

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6. Forging a Common Tradition

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pp. 185-228

In the two decades after World War II, Jews, like other Americans, joined religious congregations in increasing numbers. As new congregations sprouted in postwar suburbs, rabbis’ messages reached more people and women’s organizations linked to congregations saw their numbers mushroom. ...

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7. Hippies, Hasidim, and Havurot

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pp. 229-263

The sixties’ political and social upheavals set the stage for different religious values and practices to emerge toward the century’s end. Critiques of American society that developed with the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements posed significant challenges to the country’s sense of a social, political, and legal status quo. ...

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pp. 264-278

As the twenty-first century opened, American Jews once again found in Hanukkah’s story a way to apply the consoling language of faith while facing new threats to their existence. For more than a century and a half, Hanukkah’s account of dangerous foreigners, assimilating traitors, loyal martyrs, and faithful heroes ...

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pp. 279-282

It is a great pleasure for me to publicly thank the many people and institutions who supported my research into Hanukkah’s growth in America. From the very beginning, when I first began talking about this idea, I was heartened by the warm encouragement I received from two exceptional scholars of American Jewry, Hasia R. Diner and Jonathan D. Sarna. ...


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pp. 283-334


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pp. 335-342

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About the Author

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pp. 343-353

Dianne Ashton is Professor of Religion Studies and former director of the American Studies program at Rowan University. She is the author of four previous books, including the first modern biography of the American Jewish education trailblazer Rebecca Gratz (1997) ...

E-ISBN-13: 9781479819713
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814707395
Print-ISBN-10: 0814707394

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2013