Christmas for Jews.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Dec. 10 2009 10:09 AM

Christmas for Jews

How Hanukkah became a major holiday.

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After World War II, as Jews moved with other Americans to suburbia, Hanukkah shored up its place as their No. 1 holiday. In the early '50s, in a famous Middletown-style study of a Chicago suburb referred to as "Lakeville," sociologist Marshall Sklare found that lighting the Hanukkah candles ranked as the most popular "mitzvah," above hosting a Passover Seder and observing the Sabbath. Sklare attributed the holiday's popularity to its easy accommodation to Christmas rituals as well as to its ability to be redefined for modern times. The Hanukkah lesson being taught, Sklare noted, was no longer reverence to God for performing a miracle but rather the triumph over religious intolerance--a perfect message for liberal America in the age of the civil rights movement.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

These Ozzie and Harriet Jews also modified their observances for the 1950s home. As one historian has written, a Jewish guidebook from the era included recipes for " 'Maccabean sandwiches' composed of either tuna fish or egg salad and shaped to resemble a bite-sized Maccabee warrior, or the 'Menorah fruit salad,' a composition of cream cheese and fruit that, when molded, resembled a menorah." By the late '50s, "Chanukah's accoutrements had grown to include paper decorations, greeting cards, napkins, wrapping paper, ribbons, chocolates, games and phonograph records." Like Gentiles, Jews extended gift-giving to adults; the Hadassah Newsletter pointed out that "Mah-jong sets make appreciated Chanukah gifts." Parents could now assure children that Hanukkah wasn't a poor man's Christmas but was, in fact, a "better" holiday because it meant presents for eight days straight.

Since then, Jews have become more integrated into American life, and Hanukkah has embedded itself in television, office parties, Hallmark stores, Barnes & Nobles, and other leading American cultural institutions. Except among the Orthodox, it has been thoroughly transformed into a major festival. Accordingly, religious leaders lament this development as another instance of the Jews' perilous assimilation--if not into a Christian society then into a secular, commercial one.

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Yet the recent evolution of Hanukkah represents not a capitulation to the forces of Christmas but an assertion of Jewishness amid a multicultural society. Just as Kwanzaa, created in 1966, has returned many black Americans to their African heritage, so Hanukkah has helped tether Jews to their heritage and in some cases has brought them back to the fold. In a 1985 study, journalist Charles Silberman recounted how the writer Anne Roiphe, besieged with angry letters after she wrote an article about celebrating Christmas as a Jew, switched to observing Hanukkah and found it far more meaningful. Likewise, Silberman noted, more American Jews than ever preferred Hanukkah to Christmas. Three out of four lighted the menorah, an increase even over the 68 percent in Sklare's 1950s study. Today, the adherence to a modest Jewish ritual such as celebrating Hanukkah follows in the tradition of the ancient Israelites, who spurned the pressures to adopt Hellenism. Indeed, in acculturating to America while maintaining a Jewish identity, observers of Hanukkah may well be doing Judah Maccabee proud.

For further reading on Hanukkah's rise in the United States, consult (as I did for this article) the following books: The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950, by Jenna Weissman Joselit; A Certain People: American Jews and Their Lives Today, by Charles E. Silberman; At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews, by Deborah Dash Moore; Adapting to Abundance: Jewish Immigrants, Mass Consumption, and the Search for American Identity, by Andrew R. Heinze; and Jewish Identity on the Suburban Frontier: A Study of Group Survival in the Open Society, by Marshall Sklare and Joseph Greenbaum. The author would like to thank Professor Arthur Goren of the Columbia University history department.

(Copy editor's note:Slate defers to The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual on all matters secular and spiritual. Hence our use of "Hanukkah" rather than "Chanukah.")

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.

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