Hanukkah/Chanukkah is a widely celebrated Jewish festival in the United States. However, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, many writers have spoken of Channukah as an ‘invented’ festival and have argued about whether it reveals creative adaptation on the part of the New World Jews or a shameless assimilation into a yuletide spirit of festivities.
I would think that there is no easy standard to use when assessing human actions, either individual or collective- but especially collective. And the transformation of the way Chanukkah came to be celebrated among American Jews in the context of settling in the New World is not an easy situation to assess within set markers of ‘creative adaptation’ or ‘shameless assimilation’, perhaps even more so because of the time period in which it started (late 19th century) being around the same time the Eastern European Jews had just arrived to the big city and were in the process of adjusting to life in the ‘New World’ and I think this context must be looked at closely in order to form an opinion on the subject.
The early 1880s saw large numbers of Jews from Eastern Europe immigrate to the United States, in most cases, fleeing state persecutions and leaving behind lives of abject poverty to come to the land which promised words like ‘liberty’, ‘equality’ and economic opportunity. These Yiddish-speaking Jews added to the already present majority German and Sephardic Jewish community. Soon the new immigrants were to find that life in the ‘New World’ was not the treasure trove it was made out to be. Life was hard and moreover, their transition from predominantly agrarian societies to a teeming, industrializing city like New York, was not an easy one- especially since they were used to living in a community structure where the tenets of Judaism dictated the terms in most areas of life. Thus Jews who had lived very orthodox lives suddenly found it necessary to break with tradition as life in 19th century America was governed by another dynamic- money-making. If one had to survive, one had to change- there was simply no option of choosing to stay at home on the Sabbath instead of going into the factory, if one wanted to keep his/her job. This new immigrant life was not easy, as letters in Isaac Metsker’s Bintel Brief reveal, but this time, the Jews knew they were not forcing their way into a country that was populated by a people for generations and “their awareness that they had come with the same rights as the many other immigrants of various nationalities that had settled here and begun to build a new, richer life bolstered their courage”.
Therefore, in light of this larger context, I think it’s important to consider the weighty fact that Chanukkah was ‘invented’ (as a competitor to Christmas). Chanukkah is not mentioned in Jewish scripture as a day to be remembered- like the other important festivals of the Passover, Shavu’ot, Sukkot. Chanukkah was a minor day in the Jewish calendar that commemorated the rededication of the Temple after it was defiled by the Greeks. Chanukkah happens to fall around the winter season- early December, a month that saw many American Jews partake in the New World Yuletide spirit of decorating their houses with Christmas trees and exchanging gifts- a completely different conception from the Old World celebration of Christmas which often included anti-Jewish sentiment. Whatever the reasons for this partaking of the Yuletide spirit, the neglect of a Jewish festival that shared the same season of merriment in the New World came to be increasingly questioned in the Jewish newspapers and journals of the time despite the fact that firstly, Chanukkah was not an important marker on the Jewish religious calendar and secondly, the popular celebration of Christmas in the United States at the time had almost nothing to do with the real meaning behind Christmas. So when Jewish leaders accused the ‘Christmas’-celebrating- Jews of partaking of “gentile customs”- I don’t think it was a fear of losing Jews to Christian thought (thought this certainly must have been present among some Rabbis) that provoked this religious stance but more a fear that this culture of celebration around Christmas time could deplete the coherence of their Jewish community-identity even more in this fast-paced New World. This, to me, suggests the assertive nature of the Jewish religious identity in the face of yet another threat, but where, this time it was possible for them to take a stance unlike the work-related compromises they had to make like working on the Sabbath, eating non-kosher foods, shaving their beards, when it came to adapting to the general functionings of American life.
Therefore, the ‘invention’ of Chanukkah as a major festival was a very clever move on the part of the Jewish religious, not just because it provided an alternative to Christmas during the winter season, but because it sought to do so by compensating for the features that Hanukkah lacked vis-à-vis its competitor by creatively adapting celebrations to include the spirit of ‘romance’, of family and fun-filled activities that could be seen in the celebration of Christmas. While a few commentators have seen this presentation of Chanukkah as downplaying its theological message, I think the options facing the Chanukkah advocates were rather blunt, in that, they could either retain this minor festival in its original form and constantly fear its death in its new context or to keep the minor festival alive among the American Jewish public by transforming it into a competitor for the Yuletide spirit. This being said, it was not that Chanukkah’s new presentation was an immediate hit- in practice it still remained a relatively small affair in the pre-war years for the immigrants living in the Lower East Side, but it was the post-war years that saw this festival make its mark within the American, modernizing tradition and emerge a true competitor for Christmas among the American Jews.
The context that allowed it to do so was 19th century consumerist America. The pro-secular, commercialist trend of the time was not limited to Christianity. It layed its claws on Chanukkah too, with consumerist culture producing a wide array of products for the decoration of homes- like fancier types of menorahs and Chanukkah lights, gifts to give to children, easier to make festive-time foods and other trimmings on an essentially simple festival. However, despite these encroachments, advocates of Chanukkah stressed the importance of women as agents of the Jewish cultural identity, for instance, by exorting them to choose to decorate the home with Chanukkah lights rather than the Christmas tree.
Hence, I see the invention of Chanukkah as something that arose out of the context of life in the New World that saw Jewish immigrants compelled to compromise on a number of issues that were far more important to them (like keeping the Sabbath) that when they had a chance to reinvigorate Jewish religious identity, they chose to do so in the preservation of a minor festival like Chanukkah which was being overshadowed by Christmas. The means which they used to do this were definitely more adaptive to the larger trends of consumerism, in that the celebration of Chanukkah was reinvented to gain wider appeal using the same consumerist culture that the 19th century celebration of Christmas was also influenced by. Despite this, the main idea was still to promote the Jewish festival – which is seen in the exhortations to decorate the home with Chanukkah lights, the preparation of Chanukkah foods and Chanukkah parties, the giving of Chanukkah gifts (like children’s books with the Macabbean story)- all of which were significant embellishments to the essentially simple festival, but all of which served to drive the main point home that the Jewish identity was to be marked in the New World.
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Contributed by Nithya Kochuparampil.