Using the Archives to Reflect on Your Hanukkah Experience

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by David P. Rosenberg, Senior Reference Librarian – Collections, Center for Jewish History 

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Hanukkah Lamp. Galicia or Ukraine, ca. 1800. Silver: cast, filigree, engraved. The Max Stern Collection, Yeshiva University Museum. This lamp is of the Ba’al Shem Tov type, named after the founder of Hasidism, who, tradition tells us, owned a Hanukkah lamp of this type. This made it very popular in the Ukraine and in Poland.

The Debate Over Hanukkah

Hanukkah, the “festival of lights,” has been the issue of debate in scholarly circles. Many argue that the holiday became important only in the 20th century. Dianne Ashton claims that “it achieved its current popularity in the 1950s” (see the chapter “Hanukkah Songs of the 1950s”). Louis Finkelstein’s review of Oliver Shaw Rankin’s The Origins of the Festival of Hanukkah, the Jewish New-Age Festival begins with the question: “Was Hanukkah originally a nature festival to which historical significance became attached only in comparatively late times? Absurd as this question may seem to the uninitiated, it has seriously occupied the minds of scholars" (p. 169-173; article available on JSTOR and accessible on-site at the Center).

According to Rabbi John Rosove, there was recently a discussion titled “Reinvention of Hanukkah in the 20th Century: A Jewish Cultural Civil War between Zionists, Liberal American Judaism and Habad – Who Are the Children of Light and Who of Darkness?” It was led by Noam Zion, a fellow and senior educator at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and presented to forty rabbis of the Southern California Board of Rabbis.

Hanukkah’s Cultural Importance

Regardless of the origins of the holiday’s popularity, it is an unavoidable fact that Hanukkah is significant in American Jewish life today. Ira M. Sheskin uses local surveys to outline a concept of the modern American Jew that includes Hanukkah celebration as an element of identity. Lighting Hanukkah candles is listed beside having a mezuzah on the front door, lighting Shabbat candles and keeping kosher. Within the context of American Jewish life, Hanukkah celebration is named—along with the Passover seder—“one of the most commonly practiced Jewish rituals" (p. 78).

Examining Views of Hanukkah Through Music

The cultural importance of Hanukkah goes far beyond lighting candles. The collections of the American Jewish Historical Society here at the Center are great places to start learning about the evolution of the modern observance of the holiday. For example, Dianne Ashton traces the musical culture of Hanukkah through songbooks. She states that in 1918, The Jewish Songster went through three printings in its first year and contained a variety of languages. There were seven Hanukkah songs in it, and the work as a whole focused on “transmitting traditional values and religious knowledge.”

Ashton goes on to examine how people observed the festival of Hanukkah as a holiday that not only commemorated the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem, but also celebrated the defeat of an attempt to destroy Jewish reigion and culture. “Soon after World War II, American Jews embraced Hanukkah as a celebration of religious liberty whose meaning, they felt, embraced America’s defeat of Nazism,“ she writes (p. 83).

How Plays About Hanukkah Connect the Jewish Past and Present

Plays written about Hanukkah are also illuminating sources for insight into the culture of this holiday celebration. One gem from the collections housed at the Center—a copy of Pictures out of the past from 1918—still has the names “Sarah,” “Irving” and “Florance” penciled into it to indicate that these people will play the characters of “Esther,” “David” and “Helen.”

A few pages into the play’s action, the Mother asks “Chanukah? Who keeps Chanukah? I have Jewish neighbors and I have not heard the mention of Chanukah for years! We live so far from the Temple – and besides, nobody goes these days!” (p. 9).

The dialog continues when David makes a poignant statement “Aw, Kanukah ain’t no giant! It’s the Jewish Christmas, ain’t it, grandma?” (p. 11).

Other plays present vastly different attitudes toward the holiday. Louis Lipsky, the American Zionist leader, journalist–author and founder of the Keren Hayesod, the Jewish Agency, and the American and World Jewish Congresses–penned Vice-Versa: a Chanukah play for Purim in 1907. The front matter states that the play was written “with a view to stimulating Zionist societies in America to undertake work of a similar nature in their own cities.”

The political motivations of the work are clear: “…but that’s no Purim song!… Introducer: We know it ain’t but (turns to the company, and with them): Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Daled, Hay, Vov, ZION ZION! Father what does that mean?… Zionist Fellers! We are the boys who believe in Zion, Zion!” (p. 12).

Digging Deeper Into the Archival Collections

The National Jewish Welfare Board records held by AJHS document the Board’s “evolution from an organization founded in 1917 to provide support for soldiers in times of war to an agency involved in all aspects of Jewish life both in the United States and abroad. In 1990 JWB recreated itself as the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America.”

The finding aid explains there is a sub-series dedicated to holiday files. Two large boxes of these files (boxes 167 and 168) are dedicated to Hanukkah. One can see the folders dedicated to Arts, Illustrations, Decorations, Bulletins, Manuals, and Program Material in the form of Plays, Poetry, Arts projects, Music and more.

One undated pamphlet—Let’s enjoy Chanukah, Games, Songs, Recipes, Decorations—has a crossword puzzle, songs, dances, instructions for making decorations, and gift suggestions for children, including “Chanukah in Song--Album of 2 unbreakable records $3.15; Set of 4 unbreakable records Halutzim, Trip to Israel, Animal Friends, Good Morning about $0.39 each.”

There is also a short summary of the story of Chanukah and a statement of the holiday’s significance: “Chanukah symbolizes the Jewish people’s struggle for freedom, particularly for religious freedom which is considered a fundamental right of men in a democratic world.”

The Jewish Education Committee’s arts and crafts guide in the "Jewish festivals series” explains how to make a clay menorah for Hanukkah. A booklet The Hanukah program manual for Young adults and adults put out by the Jewish Center Division of the National Jewish Welfare board has history, stories, a retelling of the commemoration of Hanukkah in the Warsaw Ghetto, dramatics, poems, games, quiz programs, and arts and crafts.

Some of the Hanukah greetings archived were sent via V-Mail, including a greeting depicting a soldier with a shield and menorah that reads: “The spirit of the Maccabee lives on…Hanukah Greetings from the Persian Gulf Service Command.”

Hanukkah Americana

The Hanukkah book elaborates on popular ways to celebrate Hanukkah in 1975. The section on “Festivities at Home” includes a segment on parties and decorations. One paper cut design was based on the “pomegranate, star and wreath motifs on the Kfar Nahum synagogue" (p. 65).

There are also instructions and a diagram for a Hanukkiah made out of a soft drink can. The one pictured is made out of a “7 Up” soda can with the caption “Hanukkiah with a pun" (p. 49). Another Hanukkiah pictured has the candle holders made out of small Statues of Liberty (p. 46).

Beauty in holiness has a chapter devoted to old Hanukkah lamps. The article by Franz Landsberger contains illustrations of many beautiful Hanukkah candelabrum, including a silver 18th-century example with great detail on the branches, mimicking leaves of a tree.

Learn More

These are just a few examples of the treasures that you can find in the archives and collections housed at the Center for Jewish History. Join us in exploring the Jewish past by conducting your own search at search.cjh.org or sending us an inquiry at inquiries@cjh.org.

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