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Hanukkah in America: A History

Hanukkah in America: A History

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by Dianne Ashton

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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.

Instructor's Guide

New Books Network interviews Dianne Ashton

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Anna Altman
Ashton offers readers a lively account of the holiday's modern iterations.
Publishers Weekly
American Jewish History editor Ashton (Rebecca Gratz) has written a scholarly but accessible guide to the evolution of the Festival of Lights in America. After a brief introduction to the origins of the eight-day celebration of the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks in the second century B.C.E., Ashton picks up in the mid-1800s, when the holiday “began to evolve from an often neglected occasion in the Jewish calendar to one deemed particularly relevant for American Jews.” During the Civil War, Jewish soldiers fighting for the Union identified with their brave and persistent Maccabean forebears, while competing factions of American Jewry sought to lay claim to “the mantle of the Maccabees” in order to bolster their position. Most will be familiar with modern efforts to counter the pervasiveness of Christmas by boosting Hanukkah’s significance, but Ashton’s thorough treatment of her topic is sure to enlighten—she discusses everything from the official observances of Hanukkah at the White House to how the rise of the celebration affected mainstream ad campaigns and the number of opportunities available to Jewish women. It all adds up to powerful support for her thesis that Hanukkah now enjoys “a more significant place in the American Jewish calendar than it had known” since the events it commemorates. B&w photos throughout. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Ashton (religion studies, Rowan Univ.; Rebecca Gratz: Women and Judaism in Antebellum America) provides a thorough cultural history of Hanukkah in the United States, tracing the holiday's importance to American Jews. She argues that Hanukkah's popularity among Jewish Americans can be attributed to its family focus, its proximity to Christmas, and the opportunities it provides celebrants to discuss assimilation and God's intervention in history. Readers unfamiliar with Hanukkah will welcome the first chapter, "What is Hanukkah?" in which Ashton describes the Maccabean revolt that inspired the festival and goes on to discuss the holiday's historical evolution. Ashton details in subsequent chapters the uses to which American Jews put Hanukkah throughout American history, e.g., as an antidote to assimilation, an alternative to Christmas and, poignantly, a rallying cry during World War II and the Holocaust. The chapter "Hippies, Hasidism, and Havurot" describes Hanukkah's development since the 1960s, especially the influence of the counterculture, both Jewish and non-Jewish, leading readers to an understanding of the contemporary iteration of the holiday. VERDICT A successful and accessible history, Ashton's book will appeal to general readers and specialists with an interest in American Jewish history.—Matt Rice, Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
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.

Product Details

New York University Press
Publication date:
Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History Series
Sales rank:
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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Hanukkah in America: A History 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book so far :-)