History Revisited: The American Hanukkah

By Bill Simons

Hanukkah lacks the centrality and solemnity of the High Holidays. It remains a rather minor holiday in the traditional Jewish calendar – except in the United States. The dominant Hanukkah experience for most Jewish Americans is robust, exuberant and external, rather than reflective, sacred and introspective. Some of the same could be said for Purim, but the Book of Esther lacks historical plausibility. The quest for Americanization, the contours of the host culture and the chronological context made the United States fertile ground for the evolution of the freedom-fighter Hanukkah. 

“The holiday is the story of a victory and a miracle, which captures the imagination of young children. As young postwar children who were well aware of the Holocaust, we needed a narrative of triumphant Jews. A story of Jewish victory was a badge that we wanted to wear.” Phyllis Sherman, interim president of Oneonta’s Temple Beth El, wrote those observant words. The genesis of the American Hanukkah goes back two centuries, but the quintessential attributes of the holiday’s observance in the U.S. solidified in the generation following World War II. The Jewish component of America’s Greatest Generation contributed to President Franklin Roosevelt’s wars against the Great Depression and Nazi tyranny, and its members sought an identity as victors, not victims.

The post-war Americanization of Hanukkah was part of the same trajectory that celebrated the crowning of the Jewish Bess Myerson as Miss America, a muscular Jewish actor (Izzy Demsky/Kirk Douglas) embodying the cinematic Spartacus, the melding of Sandy Koufax’s pitching dominance with Yom Kippur observance and Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War. 

In the generation following World War II, Jewish veterans and their families joined the exodus from urban ethnic enclaves to the new Levittown suburbs. Prosperity, consumerism, neo-Victorianism and the Baby Boom – facilitated by the generous benefits of the GI Bill of Rights – shaped life in middle-class suburbs, largely populated by diverse groups of white ethnics, but racially segregated. The new suburbs encouraged conformity of housing, dress, behavior and thought. Cold War anti-Communism and the emergence of a new mass media, television, reinforced the postwar consensus. New to the suburbs, new to the middle class, Jews wanted to fit in. 

In the high noon of the American Century, antisemitism had not disappeared, but revulsion at Hitler’s atrocities drove it to the fringes. Sociologist Will Herberg’s Protestant-Catholic-Jew (1955) depicted a tolerant religious milieu epitomized by President Dwight Eisenhower’s assertion that sectarian differences did not really matter as long as Americans, unlike atheistic Communists, had some sort of religious belief. For Jews, however, inclusion still meant coming to terms with Christmas. 

In the mid-20th century, assimilated American Jews recast and elevated Hanukkah as an expression of their religious identity in a manner consistent with national norms. Public expressions of Christmas in the 1950s grew increasingly commercialized and secularized, making it possible for Jews to shape a Hanukkah compatible with the outward practices of their fellow citizens. The new American Hanukkah allowed Jews to lessen the distance between themselves and their Christian neighbors. 

The calendar provided seasonal commonality between Hanukkah and Christmas. An upswing in cards, gifts, bountiful food and family gatherings brought good cheer and a heightened prominence to Hanukkah. Menorah candles punctuated the cold darkness of winter in comfortable, optimistic Jewish homes. Noting parallels to Christmas, satirists noted that some Jews even displayed Hannukah bushes and outdoor lights. 

It took time for American Jews to fully come to terms with the Holocaust, a reckoning perhaps not concluded until the 1960 Israeli capture of Adolf Eichmann, chief architect of Hitler’s gas chambers and crematoriums. Eichmann’s trial and execution followed. In the aftermath of World War II, the evolving American Hanukkah emphasized military victory – courageous and righteous – and liberation from genocidal tyrants. 

Circa 1945 the typical young Jewish American man was a veteran of the U.S. military. Context is important. The robust American Hanukkah chronologically coincides with the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders and the Israel War of Independence, a triumph over multiple adversaries that reestablished the Jewish homeland after 1,900 years. In the war for a Jewish homeland, an American Jew and West Point graduate, Mickey Marcus, became the first Israeli general since Judah Maccabee. In the midst of the Israel War of Independence, another American Jew, Howard Fast, published an historical novel, “My Glorious Brothers” (1948), that is the definitive vision of the American Hanukkah. 

A work of historical imagination, “My Glorious Brothers” narrates the long, hard, bloody – and ultimately successful – revolt against King Antiochus’s Seleucid Greek subjugation of the Jews. The uprising is launched by the priest of Modin, Mattathias, in 167 B.C.E. and subsequently continued by his sons, John, Simon, Eleazar, Jonathan and Judah. Although Mattathias slays an obsequious Jew offering sacrifice at the altar of a pagan deity, resistance to a cruel, foreign conqueror – not civil war between traditional and assimilationist Jews – provides Fast’s focus. Protection of Jewish religious tradition is central to Fast’s telling of the Hanukkah genesis story, but allusion to the miraculous burning of scant oil for eight days in the rededicated Temple is the sole manifestation of divine intervention. “My Glorious Brothers” links resistance to tyranny, martial valor, and the assertion of religious freedom. 

Judah, Fast’s protagonist, is the Maccabee. In time, Maccabee is also applied to Judah’s brothers and more generally to his followers. Brilliance as a military tactician, selfless devotion to the Jewish people, personal courage, fighting prowess and charisma render a reluctant Judah the rebellion’s leader. When Judah fell in battle, leadership passed to his brothers. 
Fast’s Judah speaks as a proto democrat: “Once we had kings, and they brought suffering… The Maccabee… comes out of the people, and what he does, he does because the people desire it… when there is no more need for him, he is no different from any other man.”
Celebrate the eight days of the American Hanukkah surrounded by family. Spin the dreidel. Enjoy the gelt and gifts. Make potato latkes. Recite the blessing as the shamash lights menorah candles. And tell the story of the Maccabees. 

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.