Hanukkah in America: A Historyby Dianne Ashton
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
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.
New Books Network interviews Dianne Ashton
An American Jewish History editor details the modern development of Hanukkah's rituals and traditions Ashton (Religion Studies/Rowan Univ.; Rebecca Gratz: Women and Judaism in Antebellum America, 1997, etc.) begins her history of Hanukkah with a brief account of the second-century B.C. Judean revolt against Hellenistic rule and influence. While the Jewish calendar historically celebrated Hanukkah to commemorate the success of this revolt, it was seen as a fairly minor festival. However, during the late 17th and into the early 18th centuries, Jewish immigrant communities on America's East Coast felt that the influence of proximity to the Christian holidays of their neighbors and new Enlightenment ideas were posing threats of assimilation. Following a common Jewish theological practice, liberal reformers and ardent traditionalists alike looked to a shared religious history as a means to understand, define and defeat the problems of the present. Concurrent with America's decision to add to its holiday calendar--e.g., Thanksgiving (1863) and Memorial Day (1868)--Hanukkah's importance increased by demarcating developing traditions in a new land and offering the Jewish alternative to Christmas. Along the way, Ashton gives a nod to the role of women through an explanation of their crucial domestic job of making the home Hanukkah-friendly. The increasing malleability of the symbolism attached to Hanukkah first became evident in the 20th century, when the Hanukkah story was used to contextualize events associated with the Holocaust and the foundation of the state of Israel. Though occasionally too dense with information, this work shows how Jewish communities used "an element within Judaism that corresponded to an element of Christianity in order to resist Christianity." A fact-filled, mostly interesting account of Hanukkah's development in the United States.
- New York University Press
- Publication date:
- Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History Series
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- Product dimensions:
- 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)
Meet the Author
Dianne Ashton is Professor of Religion Studies and former director of the American Studies program at Rowan University. She is the author of four books, including the first modern biography of the American Jewish education trailblazer, Rebecca Gratz (1997), and, with Ellen M. Umansky, the widely read Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality: A Sourcebook (revised 2009).She is currently editor of the scholarly journal, American Jewish History.
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