THE HOLIDAY’S TRIUMPHANT RISE FROM AN OVERLOOKED AFTERTHOUGHT IS ONE OF AMERICA’S GREATEST SUCCESS STORIES.
It was the last day of Chanukah, and the family gathering was filled with holiday spirit. Gifts were exchanged, the menorah was lit amid prayers and sacred songs, and then everyone sat down for a festive meal. At one point during the evening, an older member of the family found himself alone in the living room with a young cousin. The little girl stared at the naked mantelpiece for a few moments and then suddenly asked, “Why can’t Santa Claus come to Jewish kids’ houses too?” Her disconcerted relative could only stammer, “Well, we’re still the chosen people.” And the girl looked him in the eye, defiant and unsatisfied, as only a six-year-old can.
Every Jewish family has a story like this. The religious educator Ron Wolfson, in his book The Art of Jewish Living: Hanukkah (1990), remembers one Christmas Eve in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, when he asked his mother, “Mommy, can we take down the Hanukkah things—just for tonight—so Santa Claus won’t know we’re Jewish?” His mother must have wished her son hadn’t learned his Passover lessons quite so well.
The universal childhood desire for more and better presents explains why in America Chanukah has come to be thought of as the Jewish Christmas—or as the Jewish equivalent of Christmas, since a traditional Jewish Christmas, as any urban Jew can tell you, consists of Chinese food and a movie. (For suburbanites, Jewish Christmas consists of skiing.) Indeed, well-meaning gentiles often accord Chanukah more importance than casual or nonobservant Jews, who, when wished a Happy Chanukah, are sometimes embarrassed to respond, “Oh, has it started already?” But despite all the fuss, Chanukah is not really Jewish Christmas. It’s Jewish Kwanzaa.
To be sure, Chanukah does have a religious basis—unlike Kwanzaa, a weeklong nonsectarian holiday invented in the 1960s to promote African-American pride and solidarity. Chanukah celebrates the rededication in 165 B.C. of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem after a successful revolt against the Syrian tyrant Antiochus. Antiochus had desecrated the temple and required the worship of Greek gods until a hardy band of Jews, led by the indomitable Judah Maccabee, evicted the Syrians with a successful guerrilla campaign. According to legend, when the Jews recovered their temple, they had only enough consecrated lamp oil for a single day, but somehow it burned for eight days until more oil could be prepared. This miracle is commemorated in the eight branches of the Chanukah menorah, or chanukiyah (not counting the elevated shamos , which is used to light the others).
The real situation was not quite as tidy as the foregoing brief summary makes it appear. The Jews were not completely united, for example; a collaborationist faction happily went along with the Syrians’ demands. And after the Maccabees took power, they and their successors adopted numerous aspects of Syria’s culture (though not its religion) and exerted a tyrannical reign over their fellow Jews. Most important, perhaps, the tradition about one day’s worth of oil lasting eight days is not mentioned in any contemporary record. It first appeared several centuries later in the Talmud, a collection of commentaries and discussions of Jewish law and customs. That was also when the name Chanukah, meaning “rededication,” was adopted; before then, the holiday was known as the Festival of Lights.
Because of its postbiblical origins, some theologians classify Chanukah as a mere festival or “semiholiday.” Many other Jewish holy days are more important from a religious standpoint—not just Passover, Rosh Hashanah (the New Year), and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) but also Simchat Torah, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Still, surveys show that among American Jews, Chanukah candle lighting vies with the Passover Seder as the most widely practiced religious ritual.
The reason, of course, is Christmas, which has posed a December dilemma to American Jews for more than a century and a half. In the 1840s, for example, the family of Mordecai Noah—a prosperous New York City journalist and lawyer who kept kosher—put up stockings to celebrate Christmas as the birthday of the religion that had spread monotheism around the world. In 1856 The New York Times reported that “in most European countries, however repugnant it may be to their sentiments, we find the Jews giving presents on Christmas,” while in New York, “they are released from this awkward predicament, for they can give their children presents at New-Year’s,” in keeping with a venerable local custom. In neither of these cases was substituting Chanukah considered an option; it was simply too insignificant.
After the Civil War, some Jewish newspapers reported a modest revival of interest in Chanukah. In general, though, as Jenna Weissman Joselit points out in The Wonders of America (1994), it remained a minor celebration for hard-core religious Jews and nothing at all for the rest. “The customary candles disappear more and more from Jewish homes,” a rabbi wrote in 1884. Four years earlier, a Jewish newspaper had pleaded with its readers to “try the effect of the Hanukkah lights. If just for the experiment, try it.”
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.
Besides the political message it carries, this shift in emphasis, from the renewed sanctification of Judaism’s holiest place to an upset victory by a plucky underdog, has allowed the holiday to be celebrated by those whose tolerance for miracles extends no further than the movie Hoosiers . Even the story of the oil can be finessed, the way some secular-minded Christians suggest that the miracle of the loaves and fishes was really a giant potluck supper. Best of all for less-than-fervent Jews, Chanukah involves no fasting, you don’t have to skip work, and no synagogue attendance is required.
In an age when faith is on the decline, Chanukah can be a sort of Judaism Lite, allowing religion and culture to be combined in whatever proportions best suit the celebrant. Not everyone is happy with the results. Frank Rich, the long-time theater critic, gives his postwar upbringing a characteristically unenthusiastic review: “The emphasis on Chanukah in relation to other more important Jewish holidays was one of the things that made organized Reform Judaism seem bogus to me.” But for those not destined to become critics, the holiday’s protean nature was useful, especially as Jews moved out of the familiar environment of their urban enclaves. In 1958 Rich’s future employer, The New York Times , reported that “the years since the war have seen a resurgence of Hanukkah, especially in the suburbs,” where many newly arrived Jews had suddenly “realized their minority status.” Earlier generations of Jews had spent their lives surrounded, if not overwhelmed, by Jewish culture. Now the biggest influences on their children’s lives were Elvis and Mickey Mouse.
Nor was the borrowing all one-way. With Middle Americans guffawing at Borscht Belt comedians on television, noshing on Jewish deli food, and sprinkling their conversation with Yiddishisms, Jews now had to make an effort to stand out from their fellow Americans, rather than (as before) to blend in. Cultural syncretism eventually reached the point where bagels could be purchased at McDonald’s (with ham or pork sausage yet). For those who were falling away from their heritage, Israel served as a real-world museum where Jews could preserve their culture and beliefs without actually having to live them. And Jewish religious rituals—which, unlike Jewish food or humor, were not likely to be co-opted by gentiles—provided a way to keep Jewishness from disintegrating into the universal solvent of American mass culture.
For atheist Jews, of course, culture is what Chanukah is all about. Hershl Hartman, a “secular humanist” Jewish scholar, sees in the religious aspects of the holiday a conspiracy of ancient rabbis to hijack a pre-existing winter folk festival that was also a celebration of popular revolution. In place of the traditional prayers, he recommends reading meaningful passages after each candle is lit, a process that may leave participants feeling that a quick trip to the synagogue would be preferable.
To fund-raisers and boosters of Jewish causes, Chanukah plays the role that The Nutcracker does for ballet companies: a holiday tradition that may be a bit overdone, but for a good cause. Leftist Jews tailor their celebrations to express sympathy with the struggle for liberation of oppressed peoples. For religiously mixed families, a chanukiyah on the Christmas table and a Star of David atop the tree keep everybody happy. Even non-Jews can get in on the act by putting chanukiyahs in their village squares or building lobbies.
As for children, Chanukah gives them at least a fighting chance to resist the seductive appeal of Santa, Rudolph, and “Jingle Bells.” The Old World custom of giving small cash gifts on Chanukah has expanded to include cars, vacations, and the latest electronic gadgets. In some ways, Chanukah out-Christmases Christmas, because you can get presents on all eight days and there’s even legal gambling with the dreidel. Imaginative families put up “Chanukah bushes,” hang blue-and-white stockings decorated with six-pointed stars to be filled by “Chanukah Harry” or “Uncle Max,” read stories about “Smiley Shalom” (a Jewish Frosty the Snowman), and cover their houses in bushels of electric lights. America’s Jews have reacted to their exclusion from Christmas the way they typically react to their exclusion from a country club: by building a better one of their own. So that’s why Chanukah is best thought of as Jewish Kwanzaa—an invented cultural celebration that each family or group adapts in its own way. Of course, by the same token, Christmas is Christian Kwanzaa (and if you object that it lasts only one day, see how many people are in your office on December 28). Easter commemorates the central miracle of the Christian faith; Christmas was not observed until early in the fourth century, when the purported anniversary of Jesus’ birth was fixed on the date of a pre-existing Roman festival, the same way Kwanzaa was opportunistically placed in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Not until the mid-nineteenth century did Christmas become an industrializing America’s dominant winter holiday. Just like Chanukah, it grew to fill a need.
Today, in a country where the martyred war dead are memorialized with barbecues and Martin Luther King’s birthday is remembered with Caribbean vacations, Chanukah truly deserves to be called the greatest American holiday. It is democratic, inclusive, and multicultural, and it celebrates liberation; it rose from modest beginnings; it is at once commercial, religious, and political; it merges immigrant and homegrown influences; it is a recent innovation that goes back thousands of years; it is frivolous yet meaningful and synthetic yet real; it is run for children with an adult agenda; it requires spending lots of money; and with the endless disputes it engenders over chanukiyahs in schools and public places, Chanukah ties in with the most quintessentially American custom of all: lawsuits. The Cinderella holiday promises to endure as long as Jewish six-year-olds are assaulted by a two-month marketing blitz every year, and as long as Israel is surrounded by enemies sworn to destroy it. In other words, there is little doubt that American Jews will continue to celebrate Chanukah with the greatest degree of enthusiasm forever.