Hanukkah may be the best known Jewish holiday in the United States. But despite its popularity in the U.S., Hanukkah is ranked one of Judaism’s minor festivals, and nowhere else does it garner such attention. The holiday is mostly a domestic celebration, although special holiday prayers also expand synagogue worship.
So how did Hanukkah attain its special place in America?
Hanukkah’s back story
The word “Hanukkah” means dedication. It commemorates the rededicating of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C. when Jews – led by a band of brothers called the Maccabees – tossed out statues of Hellenic gods that had been placed there by King Antiochus IV when he conquered Judea. Antiochus aimed to plant Hellenic culture throughout his kingdom, and that included worshipping its gods.
Legend has it that during the dedication, as people prepared to light the Temple’s large oil lamps to signify the presence of God, only a tiny bit of holy oil could be found. Yet, that little bit of oil remained alight for eight days until more could be prepared. Thus, each Hanukkah evening, for eight nights, Jews light a candle, adding an additional one as the holiday progresses throughout the festival.
Hanukkah’s American story
Today, America is home to almost 7 million Jews. But Jews did not always find it easy to be Jewish in America. Until the late 19th century, America’s Jewish population was very small and grew to only as many as 250,000 in 1880. The basic goods of Jewish religious life – such as kosher meat and candles, Torah scrolls, and Jewish calendars – were often hard to find.
My own study of American Jewish history has recently focused on Hanukkah’s development.
It began with a simple holiday hymn written in 1840 by Penina Moise, a Jewish Sunday school teacher in Charleston, South Carolina. Her evangelical Christian neighbors worked hard to bring the local Jews into the Christian fold. They urged Jews to agree that only by becoming Christian could they attain God’s love and ultimately reach Heaven.
Moise, a famed poet, saw the holiday celebrating dedication to Judaism as an occasion to inspire Jewish dedication despite Christian challenges. Her congregation, Beth Elohim, publicized the hymn by including it in their hymnbook.
This English language hymn expressed a feeling common to many American Jews living as a tiny minority. “Great Arbiter of human fate whose glory ne’er decays,” Moise began the hymn, “To Thee alone we dedicate the song and soul of praise.”
It became a favorite among American Jews and could be heard in congregations around the country for another century.
Shortly after the Civil War, Cincinnati Rabbi Max Lilienthal learned about special Christmas events for children held in some local churches. To adapt them for children in his own congregation, he created a Hanukkah assembly where the holiday’s story was told, blessings and hymns were sung, candles were lighted and sweets were distributed to the children.