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THE HOLIDAY’S TRIUMPHANT RISE FROM AN OVERLOOKED AFTERTHOUGHT IS ONE OF AMERICA’S GREATEST SUCCESS STORIES.
December 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 8
THE LITTLE-USED HOLIDAY OF CHANUKAH OFFERED AN EASY WAY TO RE-EMPHASIZE JUDAISM AND PROTECT CHILDREN FROM THE LURE OF THE FALSE GOD SANTA CLAUS.
During the twentieth century, and especially after World War II, the situation changed. This change took place for four reasons, which in approximate chronological order were Zionism, assimilation, the Holocaust, and Israel. Zionism, the belief in the need for a Jewish homeland, began to gather force toward the end of the nineteenth century. From the start, its leaders appreciated the propaganda value of a holiday that emphasized Jewish self-determination.
Zionism met considerable hostility within America’s faction-ridden Jewish community. Part of it came from the strictly Orthodox, who held to the biblical prophecy that the Jews would never have a permanent home before the arrival of the Messiah. But more Jews took exception to the basic idea that they could not find a place within gentile society. Those who hoped to do just that felt obliged to oppose Zionism. Such Jews, many of whom joined the Reform movement in the late nineteenth century, tended to downplay or ignore Chanukah because of its nationalistic, anti-assimilation overtones.
Despite this controversy, Zionism gave its followers a reason to emphasize Chanukah. A different reason, working on a different group of Jews, came into play in the decades before World War II, a time when pressure on all immigrants to become “American” was at its peak. Most Jews today know at least one family in which the grandparents have names like Chaim and Zipporah; their children are called Robert and Diane; and their grandchildren are all Joshuas and Naomis. In similar fashion, not long ago it was common for a Jewish grandmother and her granddaughters to have pierced ears, while the women of the generation in between did not—because ear piercing smacked of the old country.
Since “Americanization” was so prized, and since Christmas was such a big deal in America, many Jews put up trees, exchanged Christmas gifts, and adopted other trappings of the season. Jewish leaders worried that their religion and culture would be lost in the process of assimilation. The littleused holiday of Chanukah offered an easy way to re-emphasize Judaism, especially for children, who were most susceptible to the lure of the false god Santa Claus. For this reason, in the 1920s and 1930s many Reform Jews restored Chanukah to their calendar of holidays and even began emphasizing it.
So now another group of Jews had a reason to celebrate Chanukah: those who bought into the melting-pot idea but still wished to retain their ethnic identity. Nonetheless, there remained a large sector who neither advocated Zionism nor felt a need to reinforce their Jewishness by puffing up a minor holiday. To Jews who lived in heavily Jewish neighborhoods and stuck to their traditional religion, assimilation was not yet much of a threat. In Harvey and Myrna Katz Frommer’s Growing Up Jewish in America (1995), the writer Murray Polner, who was raised in Brooklyn in the 1930s, recalled: “There was very little hoopla over Chanukah. Once my Uncle Willie gave me fifty cents, and my father bought me a paper suitcase.” Karl Bernstein, a retired school administrator, agreed. “Chanukah was a very modest holiday when I was a kid.” Elsewhere, an Orthodox Jew remembered: “Chanukah—big deal! My father gave us each a dollar, won it all back playing dreidel, and then gave us each a quarter.”
World War II and its aftermath provided the final impetus for the Christmasization of Chanukah. First of all, there was the Holocaust, which made the holiday’s message of Jewish self-defense resonate much more urgently. Soon afterward came the founding of Israel and its successful war for independence waged by a Maccabee-like army. Together these changes had the effect of concentrating the world’s Jewish population in two places: ever-homogenizing America and ever-endangered Israel. This tied together the Jewish community’s three biggest concerns. Before the war, religion, culture, and Zionism had been three separate, often conflicting topics. Afterward, for most American Jews, it became natural to think of them as one.
Chanukah was a major reason behind this trend; in fact, unifying the Jews, even partially, may be the greatest Chanukah miracle of all. The revived holiday could accomplish this because in its new, improved form, it had something for everyone. As the years since World War II have shown, there are as many ways to celebrate Chanukah as there are to spell it. Religious Jews, for example, emphasized the sacred aspect, sometimes distributing chanukiyahs and phonetic Hebrew prayers to the nonobservant in hopes of bringing them into the fold. The less devout also flocked to the new-old holiday, but with a subtle distinction: While the Orthodox used it to celebrate the consecration of the temple after the Maccabees’ victory, secular Jews tended to focus on celebrating the victory itself.