December 7, 2004
Week 55, Day 2
24 Kislev 5765 

Chanukah in America
by Dr. Frederic Krome

Today, many American Jews celebrate Chanukah with the same gusto as their gentile neighbors celebrate Christmas. It is a time of giving and receiving, and it marks the beginning of the end of the secular year. Yet in the traditional Jewish calendar the Festival of Lights was considered a minor holiday without rampant commercialism and the secular connotations that come with gifts. In an Ashkenazi prayer book, printed in the United States in 1848, the Chanukah celebration was not yet a parallel to Christmas, although the practice of lighting the menorah was common. Indeed, throughout much of the nineteenth century American Jews tended to neglect the Festival of Lights--a fact noted even by Christian newspapers. Yet already by the 1920s, Christians were referring to Chanukah as the "Jewish Christmas," while Jews celebrated the holiday not only by lighting the Menorah but by giving gifts, all in the shadow of a developing consumer culture.

Like so many aspects of Jewish religious practice, the transformation of Chanukah was linked to the growth of United States Jewry within its unique environment. Interestingly, we can even see signs of Americanization in the changing eating habits of various Jewish communities. Jews traditionally eat latkes on Chanukah. Yet in late nineteenth century Vermont, Jews ate their latkes with maple syrup, while during the same era in California, a dish of potato pancakes was served with goat cheese!

The elevation of Chanukah to a major holiday was the result of Jews acculturating themselves to an America that was overwhelmingly Christian in population and symbols. During the renowned Pittsburgh Rabbinical Conference of 1885, where a platform of American Reform religious principles was adopted, Kaufmann Kohler (1843-1926), a leader of the Reform movement and a future president of the Hebrew Union College, spoke of the importance of dressing up Chanukah to compete with Christmas (see text below). In part, this advice was a reaction to Christian missionary activities, which attempted to lure Jewish children to Christmas celebrations with the promise of material rewards.

By the 1920s, Chanukah had become an important holiday among American Jews. Yet it would be incorrect to regard this holiday as a mere imitation of Christmas with an emphasis on the exchange of presents. Rather, American Jews use this time as a celebration of family, reinforcing Jewish identity in a country whose population may be overwhelmingly Christian but in which Jews feel at home. Chanukah, therefore, is a means for American Jews to feel a kinship with their neighbors, while simultaneously asserting their Jewish distinctiveness.

Extract of conference paper delivered by Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler
at the Pittsburgh Rabbinical Conference
Pittsburgh, Pa.
November 16-18, 1885

Our Reform has confined its work of improving the mode of worship to the Synagog, leaving the home unprovided with impressive and solemn forms and symbols of religion, and this neglect is partly the cause of our present religious indifference and apathy. Religion's fire has almost died out on the domestic altar. The question of the hour is, how to kindle and cherish it anew.... Ought we not to concentrate our forces and create new striking and stirring, attractive and beautiful forms adapted to the needs and the taste of our age and people? There is a certain rhythm in nature which might find an echo in these festive rights. We need not confine ourselves to reminiscences of the remote past; we might seek connecting links with the life around us.

Just as Passover has its memories of the past and its herbs and symbols taken from spring, so might Shabuoth as the May or summer festival offer its garlands of flowers and green boughs around the festival board, as it was, indeed, customary with our father, and the Sukkoth might present the bounties of harvest, and so the Chanukah ought to appear in a more festive garb of light and joy in order to be a strong competitor of the Christmas festivity.

More than at any other time before, our age with its stern, all-absorbing struggle for material existence, requires to be reminded that religion means cheerfulness and happiness, and that God's spirit dwells in households brightened by pure and ideal joy. And the home must again as of yore be the bright focus of a cheering faith and a hallowed life full of inspiration, comfort and sacred reminiscences. We need a system not of austere, but of joyous religious home training.

  1. In his 1885 address, Dr. Kohler stated the need for "cheerfulness and happiness" in households where "God's spirit dwells . . . brightened by pure and ideal joy." What activities do you and your family bring into your home during Hanukkah that promotes keiruv, God's spiritual nearness?
  2. By what means can Jews living in America today minimize the "Jewish Christmas" label and increase the celebration of Hanukkah as a singularly Jewish holiday?

Dr. Fred Krome is an Academic Associate at the American Jewish Archives and managing editor of the AJA Journal.

For more information, visit the American Jewish Archives web site.


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