296: Hanukkah in America by Dianne Ashton

by Gerard


296.4350973: Ashton, Dianne. Hanukkah in America: A History. New York: New York University Press, 2013. 278 pp. ISBN 978-0-8147-0739-5.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 200: Religion
  • 290: Other religions
  • 296: Judaism
  • 296.4: Traditions, rite, and public services
  • 296.43: Festivals, holy days, and fasts
  • 296.435: Hanukkah
  • +0973: United States

Hanukkah is one of the oldest religious observances still extant and celebrates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean revolts during the 2nd century BCE. It begins on the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar and continues for eight nights and days. For almost two thousand years, it was a solemn occasion replete with songs, rituals, and reflection. But, like all things, when Jewish populations increased in the United States, it became a much more diverse and interesting event. Dianne Ashton’s Hanukkah in America is a look at how changes in America’s social landscape intertwined with and transformed Hanukkah forever.

Ashton’s book covers the history and philosophy of the holiday before getting to the matter at hand. Starting around the middle of the 19th century, we see Hanukkah stay in the background as Jewish communities were starting to form in the US. Still viewed as consummately foreign, it took a while before Jews were given equal footing with their Catholic and Protestant counterparts. The proliferation of new American holidays (with new rituals) in the late 19th century gave Jewish leaders a chance to evaluate their own calendar and how they celebrated their holidays. American commercialism and pageantry transformed the holiday into a gift-giving occasion, and American democracy and pluralism welcomed Hanukkah into military services, television specials, and schools. In the end, Ashton argues that while American Hanukkah celebrations are markedly different than their Old World versions, it exists as a unique vehicle for reflection on American history and family bonds.

Knowing very little about Hanukkah and Jewish history, I found this book was very interesting and ripe with information. Ashton’s prose is dutiful and bring together many scholarly, secular, and popular sources. There is an interesting three-sided relationship between American values, democracy, and cultural holidays. The very nature of the country leaves its stamp on everything it comes into contact with, sometimes bad and sometimes good. If you’re interested in Jewish cultural history, then this book would be a very good place to start.