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