Hanukkah in America: A History – Review

Ashton, Dianne. Hanukkah in America: A History. New York: New York University Press, 2013. viii + 353 p. $29.95 USD (cloth)

In Hanukkah in America: a History, Dianne Ashton—professor of Religious Studies at Rowan University and editor of the journal American Jewish History—tells the story of how a minor Jewish holiday became a celebration able to hold its own amidst the pomp of the American Christmas season. More than hold its own, Hanukkah became an important opportunity to create and affirm a uniquely Jewish cultural space within (largely) Protestant America, while simultaneously proclaiming Jewish fidelity to the broadly shared cultural values of liberty and democracy. In this work of cultural history, Ashton addresses lay reader and specialist alike. The text is a showcase of popular scholarly themes, from the creation and negotiation of religious identities and boundaries to the construction and expression of gender norms, the place of food and popular material culture in religious ceremony, and the role of women in ritual and society. Yet her style remains engaging and accessible, eschewing the esoteric language of the rarified forms of academic analysis.

The central question Ashton sets out to answer is, “How have the experiences of other Jews in America changed the way we celebrate the holiday?” (p.2-3). Her distilled response suggests that a lack of US government intervention in religion has secured a 200 years long period in which American Jews have felt responsible for supporting, as well as at liberty to change, their modes of religious practice. With the arrival of new Jewish communities came the establishment of new congregations, leading to the institutionalization of novel religious styles. The responsibility of clergy to inspire and motivate continued and renewed engagement in Jewish life made many of them available to their congregants’ preferences. Finally, through the encounter with broader society, American culture and values began to register in the form and expression of Hanukkah celebrations (p3).

A set of ‘foundational conditions’ are identified as underpinning the peculiarity of Hanukkah as locus of innovation and ‘activism’. Tracing its origin to the Maccabean Revolt of 160’s BCE, Hanukkah’s central narrative focuses on the struggle between the forces of ‘traditionalism’ and those of ‘syncretism’. Engaging this narrative gave American Jews a vehicle for exploring the cultural-religious tensions at play in their own lives. Miraculous elements of the story—Talmudic rather than biblical in source—allowed for meditation on the perennial question of God’s role in history. The simplicity of Hanukkah’s central rite lends itself to embellishment, and its domestic setting provides a space for innovation free of rabbinic supervision. The coincidence of Hanukkah with the celebration of Christmas heightened the pressures around the negotiation of minority status, yet also encourages participation in some sort of seasonal celebration. Hanukkah gave American Jews a unique opportunity to accept the broader cultural invitation to festivity in a way that made visible and appealing their own distinct religious identity.

Ashton beings by offering a brief primer on the history of Hanukkah, nicely bookend by scenes of vying Jews;  2nd century BCE Judeans on one end, late 18th century Americans on the other. For the Americans, the question once again was one of leadership, this time amidst growing denominationalism and its accompanying competition over denominational governance. The unifying motif of these disparate parties emerged as their claim to the mantle of the Maccabees. From these early American stirrings, Ashton traces the story of Hanukkah in America through hymn books, orchestras and music bills, and on into greeting cards, children’s gifts, and eventually into the monumental and highly visible menorah lightings of Chabad Hasidism. As the story unfolds, Ashton convinces the reader of the salience of Hanukkah as an index of American Jewish life.

One drawback of this work is that it treats as much as it does. Ashton appears to have material enough for a whole series, one well worth reading. Covering 200 years in the development of a 2000 year old rite, the work is bound at times to frustrate the more specialist reader. It’s especially odd, then, that Ashton can seem so repetitive. Each chapter is capped-off by a substantial summary, perhaps intended for the benefit of the non-academic reader, though a such reader would have managed well without it. Lastly, the research is supported by extensive endnotes, yet fails to provide a bibliography. In sum, Ashton’s Hanukkah in America: a History is a compelling work, one that persuasively situates this minor holiday at the crux of American Jewish cultural history.

Claire English

Concordia University

Then and Now – 25th Edition Published

Our 25th edition of the JRC titled “Then and Now” was published April 30th 2015 through the Journal of Religion and Culture.

Copies are available for sale at $10. Please contact the JRC if you are interested in securing a copy.

We will be adding electronic copies of our articles and reviews to our website shortly, accessible to our subscribers.

Reese, Abbie. Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns – Review

Reese, Abbie. Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 272 pages. $38.50 CND (Hardcover.)

Dedicated to God is a monograph which seeks to give voice to the normally cloistered women of the Poor Clare Colettine Order at the Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford, Illinois. Weaved together from interviews conducted over nearly a decade of field-work, Reese constructs a detailed oral history of the lives these women lived before entering the order, the nuns they became once they took their vows, and the 14-acre world away from the world in which they collectively inhabit. Reese divides her monograph into three main parts, with each part containing two or more chapters which she labels with intriguing titles such as “The Claustrophobic Nun”, “Monastic Living in a Throwaway Culture” and “The Suffering Servants”. While her titles suggest that she may be linking individual stories to larger themes she uncovered during her investigation, they unfortunately often refer to small – and sometimes inconsequential – details, rather than larger themes in the collective or individual lives of these nuns. For example, “The Claustrophobic Nun” is not a chapter elaborating on the cramped, constricted microcosmic view of the convent, nor how it translates into a wider theme of transcending these boundaries through their devotion to God; rather, it simply refers to the fact that Sister Mary Nicolette is claustrophobic.

Separating her chapters are sections Reese labels “Called”. In each of these sections, she includes first-person narratives from the nuns, recounting the callings they received that caused them to join the order. Curiously, the majority of her primary chapters already contain similar stories about these nuns and how they came to enter into the order. The one apparent difference between the chapters and these sections is that instead of recounting their stories in the third person from her (the author’s) perspective, the flow switches into the first person and is told in the words of the nuns themselves. Rather than break up the flow of her larger narrative and the collective oral history of this order to give the reader a moment to reflect, these sub-chapters comes across as addendums. As such, it is truly commendable that she was able to build such a rapport with these nuns and maintain it for such a lengthy period of time. The mere accumulation of so much primary ethnographic material, this work is staggering.

By the end of the monograph, instead of leaving room for the reader to marvel at the ability of these women to live cloistered, silent lives, these women come across as fairly social, and normal, humans. Perhaps that is part of Reese’s mission, to smash whatever stereotypes one may have had walking in, to break the silence and prove to the world that these women are human with their own sets of desires, fears and quirks. Nevertheless, her conclusions cause this reviewer to wonder who exactly her intended audience was when she began composing this monograph. Is she directing this piece towards casual audiences or scholars? The casual reader will likely find a stirring read in these pages, but if scholars, not all fields will find the same cause for excitement in these pages. For the oral historian, this monograph adds a volume primary ethnographic material to the record. For scholars of religion, however, Dedicated to God offers very little theory or analysis for the academic reader to engage with, and Reese includes very little discussion of her method and means to which she was able to enter into this exclusive circle. As well, there is a conspicuous lack of footnotes and references to other scholarly works and her remark that she was able to gain the trust of these women by “demonstration [her] rigor” is cryptic at best. Perhaps a more in-depth examination of material culture, performances, collective story-telling and authorship without words would have been a welcome inclusion, but this monograph comes across as more of a recounting, a retelling or unveiling, than a formal academic investigation. Regardless, the first person interviews from her “Called” segments offer intriguing and insightful glances into the lives of these women who chose to become cloistered nuns and, even though at times they may not be the most talented storytellers, their words could surely be of some use to other scholars pursuing case studies or ethnographic work of their own. As such, one can’t help but feel that there is still quite a bit of unearthing to be done inside this “cultural time capsule”.


Sexed Religion – Call for Papers 2015-2016

Concordia’s Graduate Journal of Religion and Culture (JRC) is seeking articles and book reviews submissions for its 2015-2016 edition.

The edition is tentatively titled “Sexed Religion: Exploring Religious constructs of Gender and Sexuality” and we will be accepting a broad range of topics for consideration, both within and outside of the field of religion, that deal with sex and gender.

This is a peer reviewed journal, and offers up and coming scholars a great opportunity to get their original work published and out there in the field.

If interested, please review the CFP Guidelines or Submit your paper.

Catch you at AGIC – March 5th 2015

Drop by our booth Thursday March 5th 2015 at AGIC – Concordia University’s Annual Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference hosted by the Department of Religion.

The JRC booth will be easy to spot – just look for the booth of well dressed people next to the reception table. Seriously, we plan on being the best dressed people there.

We’ve got a bit of swag to give away, so if you love stickers and business cards (who doesn’t) come take a handful.

We will also be looking to recruit new editors and readers for our Spring 2016 edition – Sexed Religion.

The conference will be taking place from 8:00AM onward on the 7th Floor of the Hall Building.

Upcoming Publication: Then and Now

The upcoming 25th edition of the JRC “Then and Now” is in the final stages of preparation before publication. We are currently on track for a Spring 2015 release, both via the web and in print copy.

We will be aiming for a limited 1st run of 100 print copies. Complimentary copies will be provided to all authors and contributors, as well as Montreal University libraries.

Remaining copies will be available for purchase. Prices TBD.

If you are interested in reserving a copy, please contact our editorial team and let them know as soon as possible.