In the late 1800s, Chanukah almost disappeared from the American Jewish landscape....but thanks to cultural ingenuity, it’s come back strong.
Well into the 1880s, Chanukah fared poorly in America, a victim of neglect.
“The customary candles disappear more and more from Jewish homes,” lamented Rabbi Gustav Gottheil in 1884. “Kindle the Chanukah lights anew, modern Israelite!” declared Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler just a few years later. “Make the festival more than ever before radiant with the brightness and beauty of love and charity.”
Instead, American Jews—well-established and immigrants alike—were adorning their homes with greenery and parlor illuminations and eagerly exchanging gifts in the spirit of Christmas. The purchase of Christmas gifts, commented the Jewish Daily Forward in 1904, “is one of the first things that proves one is no longer a greenhorn.”
In the 1920s, Chanukah began to undergo a transformation. Ads in Yiddish newspapers touted Chanukah gifts ranging from waffle irons to automobiles—including the Hudson motorcar trumpeted as “A Chanukah present for the entire family—The Greatest Bargain [metsiah] in the World” (Der Tog, December 1925). Colgate Company ads extolled such “Chanukah Pleasures” as perfumes, shaving emollients, and dental crème. Consumers were encouraged to partake of food products “lekavod Chanukah” (in honor of Chanukah), from Canada Dry ginger ale and Goodman’s noodles to Aunt Jemima pancake flour, “the best flour for latkes.” And ads for the East River Savings Institution advised depositors to “Save for Chanukah,” suggesting that its Jewish customers take advantage of the bank’s popular Christmas plan.
Editorials accompanying these solicitations encouraged parents, particularly mothers, to add the exchange of presents to the roster of “Chanukah minhagim [customs].” Recounting the heroic exploits of the Maccabees is not enough, counseled the Morgen Zhurnal; to command the attention and affection of Jewish children, the holiday must become an occasion for storytelling, gift-giving, and merrymaking.
By the 1940s, gift-giving had become an integral aspect of Chanukah. “Jewish children should be showered with gifts, Hanukkah gifts, as a perhaps primitive but most effective means of making them immune against envy of the Christian children and their Christmas presents,” advised the authors of What Every Jewish Woman Should Know, a guidebook to modern Jewish living. And although children remained the chief beneficiaries of the holiday largesse, grown-ups were not immune to its pleasures. As the Hadassah Newsletter pointed out, “Mah-jong sets make appreciated Chanukah gifts.”
Judaica manufacturers played up the Chanukah spirit by fashioning a wide array of menorahs in tin, chromium, silver, and sliverplate. By the 1940s, many new Chanukah lamps of modern design were in stores—electrified menorahs, menorahs from the Jewish homeland, “authentic plastic” menorahs, and musical menorahs that played fragments of either “Hatikvah” or “Rock of Ages,” which were themselves available in forty-seven different styles.
After 1948, kosher chocolate manufacturers capitalized on American Jews’ fascination with Israel by also producing a line of nationalistic games. Loft’s Chocolates introduced “Valor against Oppression,” a spinwheel game featuring such latter-day “Maccabees” as Israeli General Moshe Dayan. Barton’s introduced the “Barton’s Race Dredel,” an Israelized version of Monopoly sporting a map of Israel, miniature Israeli flags, menorahs, and the text: “Every Jewish boy and girl thrills to the heroic story of the Maccabees….We light the candles every night…recite the blessings, sing the songs, play chess, go to parties and dance the hora.”
Picking up on the party theme, Emily Solis-Cohen’s popular Hanukkah: The Feast of Lights offered detailed suggestions of costumes, props, puppet shows, and dances for such characters as “The Top,” “The Pancakes,” and “The Spirit of Giving.” The Jewish ritual guidebook The Jewish Home Beautiful also designated the holiday as a “period for mirth and for spreading of good-will” and championed the merits of a home “bright with candle lights and gay with parties and the exchange of gifts.”
The consumption of appropriate holiday foods contributed to the merriment. Sharing popularity with latkes (potato pancakes) were “Maccabean sandwiches,” composed of either tuna fish or egg salad and shaped to resemble a bite-sized Maccabee warrior; and “Menorah fruit salad,” a composition of cream cheese and fruit that, when molded, resembled the ritual object.
By the 1950s, American Jews no longer had to dread the “cruel month” of December. Chanukah’s accoutrements had grown to include paper decorations, greeting cards, napkins, wrapping paper, ribbons, and phonograph records. And in the years following World War II, the outside world increasingly freighted Chanukah with the same cultural and social significance as Christmas, yoking the two together in demonstration of America’s “cultural oneness.” Public school educators in particular convened a “holiday assembly” on a “compromise date” in December in which a Christmas tree and a “Menorah candle” as well as the singing of Chanukah hymns and Christmas carols figured prominently.
As for those American Jews in search of a more authentically Jewish pretext for the celebration of Chanukah, they did not have to look too far afield. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 provided the rationale: brave warriors of the newborn state were the modern Maccabees.
Thus did a Jewish festival of diminishing popularity in the 1880s rebound on the American landscape.
“It all goes to show,” observed one suburban rabbi fascinated by the degree of attention his congregants lavished on Chanukah, “that if you work away at it, you can revive a holiday.”
Light one candle for the cultural ingenuity and determination of American Jewry.
Jenna Weissman Joselit is a cultural historian of American Jewish life and author of The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, from which this article is adapted.