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A History

By Dianne Ashton

Pub Date: Oct. 14th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8147-0739-5
Publisher: New York Univ.

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.