What makes Hanukkah great in America

by Dianne Ashton

(JTA) — As Hanukkah nears, let the grousing begin.

Too much is made of a holiday that Judaism ranks as a minor festival — one whose rite takes no more than five minutes to complete each night — some American Jews will say. Some will complain about the season’s excessive commercialism or materialism.

Yet most Jews will also participate in at least one of the many customs developed by American Jews to augment the holiday’s simple rite and express the enhanced place of Hanukkah, which this year falls on Dec. 16, on the American Jewish liturgical calendar.

In addition to exchanging gifts (or giving them to children), they will decorate their homes, eat fried foods, sing songs, listen to holiday music and attend one or more of the many holiday festivities held at Jewish community centers, synagogues, Jewish-themed museums and Jewish schools.

At these and other venues, they will join in more elaborate versions of the domestic customs. They will light holiday candles or watch them be kindled, sing more songs than they do at home, snack on potato pancakes or jelly donuts, chat with their friends and neighbors, watch or participate in amateur theatricals on the holiday’s theme — generally have a good time.

Beneath the lighthearted celebrating, however, more serious meanings are often conveyed through the holiday’s songs.

The word Hanukkah means dedication, and the holiday has always highlighted occasions when Jews overcame challenges to their continued religious commitment. Hanukkah commemorates the rededicating of the Jerusalem Temple in 165 BCE after a band of Jews led by the Maccabees retook it from the Syrians, who had conquered Judea.

Generations of Jews retold that story at Hanukkah and thanked God for helping their ancestors to prevail. American Jews found additional reasons to reaffirm their dedication at Hanukkah and often voiced those reasons in original songs.

Since 1842, American Jews have been singing Hanukkah songs that expressed the complicated experience of being Jewish in the United States. That year, a new hymnal for Congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston, S.C., included a special hymn for Hanukkah that reassured congregants that the God to whom they prayed forgave their sins and continued to stand by them. The hymn countered the energetic effort by local Christian evangelicals to convince them to worship Jesus.

Yet because it reassured Jews living anywhere in a largely Protestant America, the song appeared in hymnals used by both the Reform and Conservative movements as late as 1959.
In the 1890s, two American Reform rabbis, in New York City and Philadelphia, wrote a new English version of “Maoz Tsur,” a song that Jews have sung at Hanukkah since the 13th century. Titled “Rock of Ages,” the new song kept the melody of its predecessor, which thanked God for saving Jews in the past, but in its shortened version substituted a homey image of domesticity bright with lights and joy and promised a future that would see “tyrants disappearing.”

“Rock of Ages” offered Jews an emotional link to past traditions through its melody while reminding them of the tyranny currently besetting their coreligionists in Eastern Europe. As 2.3 million new Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe came to America over the next 30 years, the song grew popular. It became a fixture at American Hanukkah celebrations following the rise of Nazism in 1933, when the hope for a world free of tyranny seemed even more desperate.

Rewrites of older prayers or songs often appeared in the first half of the 20th century. One Hanukkah rewrite published during World War II offered a new version of an older prayer that described God’s saving power. The rewrite, offered in Hebrew as “Mi Yimalel?” and in English as “Who Can Retell?,” has a lively melody that fits its lyric, which aims to rouse Jews to act politically, militarily and philanthropically.

Although a “hero or sage” always came to the aid of needy Jews in the past, it says, the current problems facing Jewry require more. Now “all Israel must arise” and “redeem itself through deed and sacrifice.” The crises facing Jews during those years influenced the ideas and emotions that they expressed in this Hanukkah song.

The experience of unity and strength that is felt in group singing may have assuaged Jews’ fears during those decades of disorientation and anguish. Hanukkah provided an occasion for singing songs that voiced old and new hopes while building new communal alliances and bonds.

And that, perhaps, helps explain the broad and continuing appeal of Hanukkah for American Jews. Hanukkah allows Jews to join in the national merrymaking occasioned by Christmas, but also to rededicate ourselves to Judaism.

In homes, synagogues, museums, community centers and schools, it provides us with an occasion for gathering, singing, eating, lighting candles in the evenings of the shortest days of the year, exchanging gifts, voicing religious commitments and values, and enjoying being Jews.

Dianne Ashton is the author of “Hanukkah in America: A History,” which was published last year by NYU Press, and a professor of religion studies at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J..