Thursday, December 05, 2013

Hanukkah In America

Hanukkah In America:

A History

By Dianne Ashton

Published by NYU Press, 14th October 2013

Hanukkah has traditionally always been a relatively minor feast in the Jewish year across most of the world, albeit with a multiplicity of spellings!
In America, however, over a period of almost 200 years, it has been transformed into a major feast, with town menorahs becoming a traditional part of the festive decorations in many parts of America.

How - and why  - did this transformation happen?  Dianne Ashton has created a substantial book which looks at the traditional Jewish history of the events surrounding the beginnings of Hanukkah, how it was celebrated - or relatively ignored - for long periods and then became a  major festival for American Jews of all backgrounds and fervour. Historical sources are closely examined and pondered and rabbinic texts outline the how and why of the celebratory activities. The fact that Jews were never persecuted or forced to live in ghettos by state decree meant that they were free to live, celebrate their festivals and publish books to an appreciative and growing audience; Protestant Christian interest in the history of the early church and its relationship to Judaism of the time meant that many Jewish historical and commentary texts were widely republished and disseminated, even back to mainland Europe via Christian sources and Hanukkah flourished.

The story of the Maccabees heroically resisting assimilation  to the decrees of King Antiochus was meant to encourage Jews to hold fast to their traditions and identity and encourage them not to become assimilated into a non-Jewish lifestyle in America, but paradoxically, it has become  possibly the only Jewish festival which has truly permeated the general American consciousness and been adopted by mainstream America. Hanukkah also became a way for families of Jewish descent but who were not particularly devout or serious about practicing their faith on a daily basis to maintain their Jewish identity and gradually find their way back to a more observant form of Jewish practice and faith.

This is a fascinating, painstaking and incredibly detailed book which covers every aspect - religious, historical, secular, scholastic, musical, ritual, artistic and anthropological  - of Hanukkah and how it has been and is still celebrated now.

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