7701 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20012

Drash Chanukah in America

Chanukah in America: History and Meaning

Drash by Mark Berch on January 3, 1998.

The relative importance of Jewish holidays is not permanently fixed. In the Humash, the big three are Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuos. Yet in America today, it's Yom Kippur, Passover and Chanukah. How did this come about? Today, I want to talk about the history and meaning of Chanukah in America, a history which arises in substantial measure from its collision with Christmas.

In earlier days, Christmas was less of an issue. Many Protestants disliked Christmas, taking it be Roman Catholic and heathen. For them, visiting and giftgiving was done on New Year's Day. As the New York Times noted in 1856, this was to the advantage of the Jews: "In other countries, they had to either celebrate Christmas or disappoint their children. In New York, they could give their presents at New Year's, and thus avoid both horns of a dilemma."

But eventually Protestant resistance to Christmas eased and by 1875, New Year's gift giving was disappearing; Christmas was becoming more of a national event. By the end of the century, it was agreed that Chanukah was to be a children's festival, but it still wasn't getting a great deal of attention. Thus, a Reform Rabbi noted in 1884, "The customary candles disappear more and more from Jewish homes." In the late 19th century, Reform was not sympathetic to Jewish nationalist movements, but instead tried to reshape Chanukah along the lines of political emancipation. Thus, Rock of Ages sang:

"Yours the message cheering, that the time is nearing,

Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing!"

No such lyrics, or sentiments, actually appear in Ma'oz Ur.

In fact, in the pre-WWI era, Jews were turning more to Christmas than Chanukah. One observer wrote in 1916: "Jewish young folks give and accept Christmas presents. Christmas is an occasion for extra shopping, purchase of new clothes, going out to parties." The theological implications of Christmas were ignored. This appeal was not just to established American Jews, but to immigrants as well. The Yiddish press, always seeking to familiarize its readers with American ways, ran features such as "Christmas and Yom Kippur: Fantasy and Reality", and extended discussions of Christmas shopping practices. Similarly, the Jewish Daily Forward, in a 1904 article entitled "Pious They may be, but they still observe Christmas" quotes an immigrant as saying, "The purchase of Christmas gifts is of the first things that proves one is no longer a greenhorn."

Not everyone felt this way. Kaufman Kohler asked in 1890, "How can the Jew, without losing self-respect, partake in the joy and festive mirth of Christmas?" Writing in Ladies Home Journal in 1906, Rabbi Emil Hirsch argued that Chanukah "provides ... an occasion for as intense a manifestation of joy". He noted the similarities: a "vigorous story, dramatic incidents, strong personalities, fine home scenes, abundance of imagery, plenty of traditions, and home cheer."

But then, as now, it was impossible to sell Chanukah as being as joyous as Christmas. Kohler also observed, "How humble and insignificant does one appear beside the other." Ester Ruskay wrote in 1902 that Christmas "gives a zest to life that all the Chanukah hymns in the world, backed by all the Sunday school teaching and half-hearted ministerial chiding, must forever fail to give."

After WWI, however, Chanukah began to rise as an occasion for consumption. Consumption of food products such as Goodmans Noodles and Aunt Jemima pancake flour was urged "Likhvod Chanukah". Crisco was trumpeted as the allying of "Chanukah latkis and Modern Science". The East River Savings Bank advertised "Save For Chanukah", imitating the popular Christmas Savings plans. The Libbey Hotel Corporation suggested stock shares in itself as a modern version of Chanukah Gelt.

Editorials urged parents to get into the swing of things. Thus, in Morgan Zhurnal of Dec. 1925 entitled "Chanukah Must become a True Children's holiday" mothers were exhorted to add gift exchange to the "Chanukah minhagim". This book "Mother Goose Rhymes for Jewish Children" has six Chanukah poems. Four deal exclusively with Chanukah toys. The Maccabees are mentioned only once --- a reference to a Maccabee doll.

Manufacturers and importers of toys and Judaica leaped on this trend with all manner of decorations, games, records, and books. By the 1940s, this had now become an integral part of the holiday. Thus, the 1941 book "What every Jewish Woman Should Know" makes the point rather baldly: "If ever lavishness in gifts is appropriate it is on Chanukah. Jewish children should be showered with gifts .... as a perhaps primitive but most effective means of making them immune against envy of the Christian children." And adults were not to be left out. "Mah-jong sets make appreciated Chanukah gifts" intoned the Hadassah Newsletter of December 1940.

Menorahs were a special focus. Once menorahs became giftable, they appeared in tin, oxidized copper, greenware, bronze, chromium, and silver. Ziontalis produced musical menorahs, capable of playing fragments of either Hatikvah or Rock of Ages, available in 47 styles. Menorahs became imported from Palestine, further legitimizing this type of gift giving.

In addition, Chanukah began to be used as a theme for a variety of products. Thus, Loft's Chocolates and Bartons put out games such as "Valor Against Oppression", with modern day Maccabees such as Moshe Dayan. Emily Solis-Cohen put out in 1937 a complete guidebook where one could find sheet music to Chanukah songs and detailed descriptions of how to give a Chanukah party. These and other books presented Chanukah at home as "bright with candle lights and gay with parties and the exchange of gifts".

By the late 1950s, the full range of Chanukah kitsch was available: napkins, cards, wrapping paper, decorations, games, records, cut-out paper Maccabees, and chocolate latkis. Chanukah now had all the accouterments needed to be a viable cultural substitute for Christmas.

By the sixties the amalgamation of Chanukah and Christmas reached new levels. There were joke cards with Yiddish speaking Santa Clauses and


But many remained critical. Thus, one writer in The Reconstructionist in 1948 complained "Chanukah is only one of our festivals, and a minor one at that, but we exalt it above all our holidays." Jewish Life noted in 1952 that Chanukah was becoming a "back door means for participation in a Christian festival" and that Chanukah would "sustain no borrowings" The leadership of Young Judea in 1931 advised that "Christmas ... is a purely Christian religious festival" and that with Chanukah, "there is not the slightest similarity" The religiously oriented Yiddish press urged sending shekels to Palestine.

Still, the process continues. Increasing commercialization has generated increasing sales for Jewish gift shops, school fundraisers, etc. Card makers estimate that 11 million Chanukah cards, in hundreds of designs, will be sent in 1997. In the late 1980s the phenomenon of interfaith cards began to take off. These are generally humorous or ecumenical. They can be quite peculiar, such as one showing Santa Claus being met by "Mama Hanukkah", who is in a sled being flown by geese. Yeshiva University archivist Shulamith Berger argues that Chanukah cards are "symbols of acculturation, the Christmas/Chanukah cards are tokens of assimilation." Some of the market, however, is a replacement for the generic "seasons greetings" card often sent to business or professional contacts. And the process is ongoing. In the 90s we now have Chanukah "countdown calendars", borrowed, not from the Omer calendar, but from Advent calendars which count the 24 days before Christmas.

Hanukah's expansion has also occurred artistically. The Chanukah menorah, now the most widely owned Jewish ritual object has burst out of its traditional forms and materials. A 1995 invitational show in San Francisco had 125 menorahs, with prices ranging from $350 to $30,000. They are now made from fused glass, stainless steel, acrylic, anodized aluminum, graphite, circuit board, marble, plexiglass, machine parts, and perversely, made entirely of wax. Menorahs are made with the pink triangle of gay pride, with slots in the base for all 44 candles, and in the shape of famous synagogues. You can have them made to order, to include your family members and pets.

Much the same has occurred with the humble dreidel, now available in crystal, Limoges porcelain, stained glass or sterling silver. There are dreidels that are launched like a gyroscope, that light up or sing out, that jog on little plastic feet, that are shot out of a toy gun. Dreidels too have become collectables.

There has even been a spillover of Chanukah onto the gentile side. Many intermarried families land up with the gentile parent also participating in the ritual, but it goes beyond that. The Washington Post reported in 1997 on a New Age Kabbalah movement that has its adherents, mostly gentiles, blessing Chanukah candles in a Christmas Eve service. In 1997, for the first time, a Cardinal lit Chanukah candles at the Vatican, on behalf of the Pope. Boston Globe columnist Linda Weltner relates that at her Unitarian Church they do light Chanukah candles: "We sing 'shalom shalom' to the tune of 'Silent Night' with all the candles burning." And anti-Semitic violence at Chanukah in Billings, Montana in 1993 was responded to by gentiles taping pictures of menorahs onto the windows of their schools, churches and homes.

So what have Jews been doing with Chanukah? For one thing, we still agonize over the relationship between Chanukah and Christmas.

One shifting area of conflict has been the role for Chanukah in the public schools. By the 1940s, joint Chanukah - Christmas programs were being held. But before long, such programs came under attack by both Jews and Christians. The problems now tend to center on the use of religious songs in winter assemblies. Chanukah songs may be included to legitimize the use of Christmas songs. Is this acceptable? Is there a difference between listening to the songs and performing them? Where is the line between an informational experience and a celebration?

Another flashpoint has been the public symbols. The decision to erect an electric menorah on public land has repeatedly divided Jews. An example of this occurred in 1993 in Great Neck, NY. Lubavitch Rabbi Yossi Geisinsky argued before the Park Commission that an electric menorah was not a religious symbol, and indeed, not even exclusively a Jewish symbol, but rather one representing human freedom. A coalition of Conservative and Reform rabbis disagreed, and argued that this would open the doors to a KKK Cross. The coup de grace apparently was a Chabad threat of a lawsuit with $135,000 in attorney fees. This was no idle threat; similar lawsuits by Chabad were successful in Grand Rapids, Cincinnati, and Atlanta. The menorah was approved, although wiring problems forced them to plug the menorah into the Santa Claus. These menorahs tend to be popular with Jews, yet lawsuits against them, which seldom succeed, are frequently brought by Jews.

No other aspect of Chanukah raises such a variety of troubling questions. Rabbi Robert Bloch points out that the menorah is there to remind Jews that it is Chanukah "... and instilling in them the significance of the holiday. Secondly, the menorah proclaims to the American people that there is a vibrant Jewish community, with a unique observance..." But Rabbi Lee Friedlander worries that "for many American Jewish families, the symbol of the menorah has become as empty as the Christmas tree... By seeing it ... at the tollgate or in a public park, I think we trivialize the symbol and what it stands for." Is an unattended symbol on public land the exercise of free speech, or is it associated with the place, i.e. with the government? When the menorah and tree are used as store decoration, are Jews being accepted, or is our symbol being coopted to sell merchandise? Chabad Rabbi Yosef Landa argues that the publicly erected menorah is analogous to a Christmas tree rather than a cross. Is this an analogy that Jews want? Is an immense menorah even an apt symbol for Chanukah? The one in Beverly Hills at at one time was 27 feet tall, weighed 2 1/2 tons, and driven into the ground with long steel spikes. Does this gloriously proclaim the miracle, or is it a grotesque monstrosity?

Even beyond the public roles, Jews have found plenty to argue about.

In 1971, Ester Tucker wrote, "we have to rev-up Chanukah, and for all its worth .... whole hearted celebration, complete with gifts, decorations ..... and anything else with pleasurable associations." She urged that we imitate, not Christmas, but the enthusiasm of Christians. Susan Lieberman in 1986 argued, "The culture around us makes December a month for celebration ... the rhythm requires a major holiday, and Chanukah ought to arise to the occasion." Jews ought to celebrate fully and reflect on its themes --- and not down play it to avoid comparison with Christmas. Responding to the culture, but not being overwhelmed by it, she argues, is true to the original Chanukah story.

But Grace Goldin, writing about Iowa City, Iowa in the late '40s, sees it the other way: "In our town Chanukah is no longer a Jewish Holiday -- its a major competitive winter sport .... we start making preparations a week before Thanksgiving .... If Chanukah comes earlier than Christmas, it's an inoculation; if later, an antidote; either way we violently amplify it, so great has become our need ... what used to be a festival of freedom becomes a festival of refuge."

One rather unaccommodating approach is suggested by Rabbi Donin: "Parents err when they try to build up Chanukah as the Jewish equivalent of Christmas". Giving gifts on all 8 days is "very expensive and totally unnecessary. It suggests to the child that the Jewish way is preferable because gifts are more plentiful." His solution is to have "colorful and gala festivities" on the other festivals along with modest ones for Chanukah as well. A similar strategy is advocated by Lesli Koppelman-Ross: "Maybe if your children have built and decorated a sukkah, festooning it with greenery, garlands, fruit and ornaments ... they won't feel they are missing anything."

Mae Rockland prescribes a similar course but for a different purpose: "Generous helpings of Shabbos and holidays, in a home full of Jewish art, music, books and thought, fortify a child's spirit so that he can feel genuinely happy for his non-Jewish friends. Jewish children can comfortably help classmates decorate a tree or go to a Christmas party - if they have something precious to share as well." A related approach emerges from the childhood of Letty Pogrebin, who recalls visiting her Catholic friend to decorate the tree, and sing Christmas carols. She was "never jealous", for when her friend came over "to share in my family's festivities, I felt I was offering her, not a second rate Christmas, but a holiday with it's own magic and own glow ... I felt a little sorry for Sue: her holiday was over in twenty-four hours, while mine lasted for eight glorious days."

Dr. Trude Weiss-Rosmarin argues that those "truly concerned about better understanding between Christians and Jews ... should concentrate on placing Chanukah menorah and Chanukah tinsel side by side with the Christmas tree and Christmas tinsel. This is neither compromise nor religious syncretism."

But Monford Harris, writing in a Labor Zionist newsletter in the mid '70s emphasized the differences: "The richness of the American Christmas is its essence. The simplicity of Chanukah is its essense .... Christmas is a structuring of the world along the lines of ... an enchanted realm that transcends time and space.... It is a magic, bucolic wonderland." It is the "plenitude of stuffed fowl and .... stuffed stockings .... Christmas eve is a silent night , not a creature is stirring ... in the timeless world" But Chanukah is "a structuring of the world along lines of history ... military victory, rededication of a particular temple". He points out that the miracle of the oil did not lead to enchantment, that Chanukah is locked into a particular time and place, and "there is no ... silent vegetative world."

Another approach is to establish connections with other celebrations. Thus, at the time of the Bicentennial, Budd Schulberg wrote, "Mattathias was Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin and Sam Adams gathered into one towering figure. There were many 'Boston Massacres' as the Judeans resisted the Syrian demands .... Like Washington, Judah saw many of them desert and he sustained the morale of the others with his courage ... Against the Syrian general, Seron, Judah launched a surprise attack. It was not unlike the famous crossing of the Delaware..." Judah's speech, "It is better for us to die in battle than to behold the calamities of our people and our sanctuaries" is paralleled with Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death."

Others, such as our local Bnai Brith museum, are now running Chanukah - Kwanzaa cultural exchange programs.

For some, writing about the issue took an unexpected turn. In December 1978, Anne Roiphe wrote in the New York Times about why she would not celebrate Chanukah, but did have a Christmas tree. For this she received an extraordinarily harsh reaction. But others invited her to reconnect, to investigate what she had missed out on. In doing so, she came to face her own assimilation, and to decide that it had "a dark side" that "can deprive a person of the pleasure of belonging and the vitality that comes from real knowledge about and interest in that person's own community" . She came to see resisting Christmas as a way of asserting her own, newly established, Jewish identity. She also came to see Chanukah as "an important tool in fighting the appeal of mass culture" and a time to "pause in awe before the Jewish people whose survival through adversity brings light into the darkness of the human soul."

Others apply the lessons of the historical events as they see them, especially for commenting on Israel. For Professor Jerold Auerbach, Hellenism characterizes much of what he dislikes in Israel: "VCRs and cellular phones have replaced Greek theater, shopping malls have supplanted the gymnasium, and Michael Jackson and pop singer Aviv Geffen are the Israeli cultural equivalents of Greek Gods." The political structure is not spared either: "With the decision by Israeli officials to relinquish Hebron, the triumph of Israeli Hellenism is assured ... Zionism has recast itself as another form of Jewish assimilation." For Michael Lerner, it's the other way around: "Some right wing Zionists, believing in military power as the primary way to create security for Israel, have turned might into their God ... peace and reconciliation are impossible... Yet this way of thinking is Hellenism --- the validation of that which is and the inability to commit to that which ought to be." After the Rabin assassination, Rabbi Daniel Landes wrote: "Yigal Amir might well imagine himself a modern day Maccabee." Gershom Gorenberg notes that "Far-right fundamentalists in Israel 'learn' from Chanukah that they should destroy any alien sanctuary [specifically, the Dome of the Rock] in the way of rebuilding the Temple."

Not all focus on Israel. For Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz the original Chanukah was "a triumph of a small group of Jews ... not to surrender to the prevailing morality of the times; to take stands that were unpopular even among their fellow Jews." This challenge he sees as still with us: "It is not easy to adhere to the way of Torah and mitzvot when the vast majority of both the Jewish and non-Jewish world think such practices are primitive and foolish ... Often, our task appears both thankless and hopeless."

Rabbi Avis Miller, in criticizing the isolationism of the ultra-orthodox, suggested in 1992 that we should follow the Maccabees in rejecting the Zealots who insisted that "Jews have nothing whatever to do with the surrounding culture."

Abraham Twerski, who works with recovering substance abusers, sees the Maccabees as followers of that standard recovery slogan, "Take one Day at a Time" --- take on today only what you can do today. There was only enough oil for one day, but rather than being paralyzed about the insoluble problem of tomorrow's oil, they did what they could do today --- they lit it.

Finally Gary Rosenblatt editorialized that the success, and the later descent into savagery of the Hashmona'im "should remind us that neither religious belief nor civil tolerance alone is enough for Jewish society to survive and thrive." Both must be present. But, he admits, it "all depends on how you 'spin' --- not the dreidel, but the modern interpretation of the ancient story."

Other have attempted to define what the meaning of Chanukah ought to be.

For Daniel Gordis, Chanukah is "fundamentally about survival. It is about the endurance of the weak, but also about the tenacity of the Jews. Chanukah thus urges modern Jews to reflect on their survival." In Ma'oz Ur, Chanukah is seen as part of a larger pattern of miraculous survivals of the Jewish people. We need, he says, to be awed by our own history, and we need to use Chanukah to remind the world that the weak can "transcend ... the cruelties of human history." This use of Chanukah he argues is uniquely Jewish, for no other people can demonstrate such long survival against such a harsh world. Gordis argues that the rest of the world is interested. He points to Mark Twain's famous essay, "Concerning the Jews", which marvels over the the fact that Jews have outlived so many other civilizations and the explicit interest of the Dalai Lama in Jewish survival. We should see that a key part of who we Jews are, is as a bearer of this vital message.

Arthur Waskow looks for a psychological meaning. He sees significance in the holiday's timing, when the sun is the weakest, and the moon is about to wane into near invisibility. Our response to this season of darkness, he urges, is to make new light. The Maccabeeans brought "the spark of rebellion ... at the darkest moment in Jewish history" --- when we were most imperiled, internally and externally. And in the Temple, the response to the spiritual darkness of a desolated Temple and insufficient oil was to light the last jar of oil anyway. Chanukah is "when light is born from darkness, hope from despair." He urges that this approach can connect both the activist tradition of the Maccabee warrior and the spiritual faith emphasized by the ancient Rabbis.

For Lesli Koppelman-Ross, Chanukah is for personal commitment to Jewish continuity: "The candle casts an intimate circle of light that draws the family around it ... it is no accident that we observe this holiday within the embrace of family, the most important element in the transmission of Jewish values and tradition." Lesli notes that that the word Chanukah comes from the same root as Khinuk, education.

A alternative approach is to emphasize the universality of Chanukah's themes. Rabbi Irving Greenberg sees in Chanukah "the clash of the universal with the particular. Hellenism saw itself as the universal human culture". It's opponents "were not fighting for a pluralistic Judea" but rather to save a "particularist Judaism." By refusing to disappear, Jews "force the world to accept the limits to centralization" and centralizing processes, he notes "often turn oppressive or obliterate local cultures and dignity." So, he says, "The Maccabee revolution made clear that a universalism that denies the rights of the particular to exist is inherently totalitarian and will end up oppressing people in the name of one humanity". Judaism, he argues, must continue to resist all universal cultures, be they Marxism, "triumphalist Christianity" or "monolithic Americanism."

Likewise is Theodor Gaster, who sees Chanukah as celebrating "the first serious attempt in history to proclaim and champion the principle of religio-cultural diversity in the nation." He also has Chanukah reminding us about the nature of resistance: "the only effective answer to oppression is the intensified positive assertion of the principles and values that oppression threatens." Further, Chanukah teaches "the value of the few against the many... the struggle of a small band, not of a whole people."

Another expression of universal themes at Chanukah time is the song "Light One Candle." Not written as a Chanukah song, it contains no direct tie to Chanukah other than candles. Peter Yarrow wrote it to express opposition to Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman considers it "this generation's version of 'Hanerot Halalu' " .

An extreme version of universalizing Chanukah appears in the animated fantasy "Lights." First broadcast in 1984, it has been shown several times since, was made available on film, and tape along with a book and is surely the most widely seen Chanukah video. The movie does not explicitly mention the miracle of the oil, downplays the military conflict, and gives little emphasis to the ritual aspect of the holiday. Indeed, neither the concept of religious freedom, or even the word "Jewish" appear. The term "Hanukah" appears only once. Instead, the events are portrayed as a vague struggle for the right to be different, in an undefined way, from the universal culture.

Chanukah, says Rabbi Irving Greenberg is a "Holy Day Rorschach test" as each generation interprets the festival "in its own image, speaking to its own needs." The threat of being engulfed by Christmas means that Chanukah must always struggle for its own identity. The risk is that Chanukah will become just another winter festival: they have their lights and we have ours. Indeed, despite all efforts, Chanukah, uniquely among Jewish holidays, continues to be evaluated by comparison to a Christian festival. A perfect example of this was seen in a 1996 essay by Sherri Mandell in the Washington Jewish Week. She wrote, "It was hard to escape the feeling that Christmas was the real holiday, and ours, the stepsister .... I drove with my children right after sunset. We could see menorahs in many windows in Kemp Mill, their flames pale, fading quickly. They were surrounded on all sides by bright Christmas lights whose glare was electric, constant, unchanging."

I want to close with two personal observations. I think its time to stop calling Chanukah a "minor" holiday. Holidays are as important as Jews make them to be. If a Holiday can substantially fade, as has happened with Rosh Hodesh, then a Holiday can ascend as well. And we ought to be mindful of how we celebrate it. Chanukah is by far the best known Jewish holiday to gentiles, and thus, like the Holocaust Museum, it is one of the primary ways that we speak to gentiles. And we certainly don't have to allow our holiday to be trashed as is occurring with Christmas. There are themes in Chanukah that we and the rest of the world need to hear, and this is our time to speak them.


Selected Bibliography:


"The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950", Jenna Weissman Joselit (Hill and Wang, New York, 1994)

"Seasons of Our Joy", Arthur Waskow (Summit Books, New York, 1982)

"The Jewish Way", Irving Greenberg (Summit Books, New York, 1988)

"Festivals of the Jewish Year" ,Theodore Gaster (Morrow & Company, NY, 1952)

"Deborah, Golda, and Me" Letty Cottin Pogrebin (Crown Publishers, Inc., NY, 1991)

"Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holidays Handbook", Lesli Koppelman-Ross

"That Christmas Problem" , Melvin Landsberg, Commentary, December 1954, page 558.

"The Magnification of Chanukah", Jakob Petuchowski, Commentary , Vol. 29, page 38, 1960.

"The Season of Anxiety", Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, Jewish Spectator, November 1969, page 5.

"December is for Hanukkah", Susan Lieberman, Reconstructionist, December 1986, page 13.

"Taking Down the Christmas Tree", Anne Roiphe, Tikkun , Vol. 4, No. 6, page 58, November 1989.

"In the Cards", Shulamith Berger, Hadassah Magazine, December 1991, page 48

"When a Rabbi Says No to a Menora", Jerome Davidson, Reform Judaism, Winter 1994, page 22

"Rreading Chanukah Judaism's Festival of Survival", Daniel Gordis, Jewish Spectator, Winter 1995-1996, page 15.


The first five books are at the Mollie L. Berch Library at Tifereth Israel. The sixth book can be found at the Isaac Frank Library in Rockville, MD, as can the magazines.


Copyright © 1998 Mark L. Berch