‘Tis the season for holiday traditions and rituals – and for social media posts like this one that try to give some historical perspective to why we celebrate the way we do. So many holidays cluster around the winter solstice, such as Christmas and Hanukkah and New Year’s Eve (or Saturnalia or your basic pagan winter solstice festival of lights). For many of us, these are closely tied to personal identity, family history, and religious belief and trying to suss out the historical details of how these holidays were first celebrated and how they have changed over the years can leave us as twisted up and frustrated as trying to straighten out tangled strings of lights. Whether lighting menorahs or hanging stockings, it’s interesting to stop and ask ourselves: Why am I doing this? Who was the first person to do this? What have these traditions meant in the past and why were they passed down to me?
If you’re looking for the origins of how Hanukkah is celebrated in the U.S. you’ll want to head to the mid-nineteenth century. The holiday itself, of course, has been celebrated for centuries; it commemorates the rededication of the second temple in Jerusalem in the second century B.C. (Syrian-Greek oppressors had desecrated the temple in an attempt to encourage assimilation but the Maccabean Revolt restored Jewish access to the temple). Jewish families had been established in North America for centuries as well, but the Jewish population in what became the U.S. was clustered in small pockets scattered throughout the country and the Hanukkah celebration was a relatively minor holiday (it is not mandated in Scripture). In a wave of migration starting in the 1840s, German Jews in particular brought with them a European tradition of celebrating a secularized Christmas. As Christmas grew in cultural (and commercial) importance in America through the mid-nineteenth century, the close chronological proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas — and the fact that both holidays have been referred to at various points in history as the “Feast of Lights” — proved a flashpoint for questions about distinctiveness, assimilation, and reform. (Keep in mind, the intermingling of holiday symbols could go both ways. The day after Christmas in 1876, The Sun described Baltimore’s local German churches’ celebrations as a mixture of holiday traditions: “Illuminated Christmas trees were conspicuous in all” the churches, and one “exhibited a stand used by the Hebrews at the celebration of the Chanukaw [sic], or Feast of Lights.”) The transitional period of the mid-nineteenth was significant not just for how American Jews celebrated Hanukkah; it is a less well-known but nonetheless key pivot point in the American Jewish experience in general.
American Judaica, 1841-1876 is a new online resource focusing on the middle years of the nineteenth century in the American Jewish experience, using items printed during those years in fresh new ways. Featured selections include about sixty written and visual examples, a geographic mapping of some of the Jewish institutional publications held at AAS, and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Judaica materials that the Society’s curators have been adding recently. The project is an outcome of the work on AAS’s later Judaica holdings done by intern Claire Jones in the summer of 2016 as part of the Princeton Internships in Civic Service (PICS) program with funding generously provided by AAS chairman, Sid Lapidus. (You can read more about her research process and discoveries in a series of entertaining blog posts posted earlier here in Past is Present.)
Why focus on the middle of the nineteenth century? Rather than an origin story of the first Jewish this or that, or being understood only as a precursor for the present day, focusing on the mid-nineteenth century can expose a distinct perspective all its own.
For instance, searching AAS’s newspapers for mid-nineteenth century Hanukkah celebrations reveals rather unexpected geographic centers for American Judaism, such as Ohio. In the popular imagination, Jewish American life is often tied to New York City — after all, that is where the first Jews settled in the 1650s and where great waves of immigrants arrived starting in the 1880s. However, it was in Cincinnati in 1860 that Isaac Wise published a romanticized story based on the Maccabean Revolt in his national Jewish magazine, The Israelite. Also, in a quick search of digitized non-Jewish newspapers, the earliest reference to specific celebrations of the holiday in their local Jewish community was from Cleveland, Ohio: a notice of the beginning of Hanukkah in the December 8, 1860 issue of Plain Dealer. Other early mentions of the holiday appeared in 1868 in Jackson, Michigan, in 1869 in Boston, Massachusetts, and in 1874 in Alexandria, Virginia.
Besides rearranging our mental map of American Judaism, focusing on mid-nineteenth century American celebrations of Hanukkah highlight different aspects besides the trappings of dreidel, gelt, and latke. Hanukkah celebrations provided an opportunity for Jewish Americans to publicly proclaim their identity with lighted menorahs to be displayed in each household’s front window, and in the mid-nineteenth century one first begins to find mentions of the holiday being celebrated in non-Jewish newspapers. Among the characteristics emphasized in these accounts were the “hilarity” of the holiday, its focus on charity and civic mindedness, and the perseverance of Jewish identity.
In its November 30, 1869 edition, The New York Herald described the Hanukkah festivities in that city and explained the significance to their non-Jewish readers: “The synagogues last evening were splendidly lighted and adorned with wreaths and garlands. On the reading pulpit were placed candlesticks with candles… Thanks were said, hymns psalms and praises were sung, and the occasion generally celebrated with great hilarity publicly in the synagogues as also privately within the family circle.” The importance of the holiday to “our Hebrew fellow-citizens” was emphasized in an article in The Critic (Washington, DC) on December 12, 1871, as well as the charitable giving associated with the holiday: “This feast is one of sacrifice and love, and one on which the more fortunate members of the Hebrew Church make contributions for the relief of their less fortunate brethren.” The Galveston Tri-Weekly News (Galveston, Texas) for December 8, 1871, provided a lengthy description of the historical events commemorated and how Hanukkah was celebrated, adding “such it has been kept through dispersion, during persecution, and alive yet on the present day.”
For more interesting developments in Hanukkah celebrations in the U.S. after 1876 — one of the most striking being Maccabean pageant the “The Grand Revival of the National Holiday of Chance” by Young Men’s Hebrew Association in 1879 — see Dianne Ashton’s Hanukkah in America: A History [catalog record]. We hope you will also enjoy American Judaica, 1841-1876.