Americanizing Chanukah

Posted on December 14th, 2012 by

A blog post by Historian Deb Weiner.

Last week, a reporter from the Jewish Times called to ask when Chanukah gift-giving first became popular in America. I had no clue, but I knew where to find the answer: in the book Wonders of America, by Jenna Weissman Joselit, a leading historian of American Jewish popular culture. I pulled the book off the shelf, looked up “Chanukah” in the index, and relayed the relevant details to the reporter. I thought it would be pertinent to share Joselit’s observations with you as well.

K2003.3.1a

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Joselit writes, “more American Jews were inclined to experiment with Christmas than with Chanukah. Beguiled by its charms, they adorned their homes with greenery and eagerly exchanged gifts.” Along with other Americans, Jews ignored the religious meaning behind Christmas and enjoyed its “secularized, commodified, and mirth filled dimensions.” The holiday’s appeal was not limited to “well-established Jews”—it trickled down to immigrants as well. “According to the Jewish Daily Forward, a startlingly large proportion of new arrivals took quickly to the custom of giving Christmas presents, a practice allegedly as widespread as the exchange of Purim gifts. ‘Who says we haven’t Americanized,’ the paper quoted several immigrants as saying. ‘The purchase of Christmas gifts is one of the first things that proves one is no longer a greenhorn.’”

 

Hutzler’s gift box, 1997.83.9a

 

Jewish leaders tried to promote Chanukah as an alternative to Christmas, but “no amount of rhetorical excess could disguise the fact that Chanukah’s charms paled in comparison with those of Christmas.” Joselit does not identify who came up with the idea of giving gifts as part of celebrating Chanukah, or precisely when the custom took off, but gift-giving was clearly a key part of the holiday’s revival in the 1920s. That’s when Chanukah “began to come into its own as a notable Jewish domestic occasion and an exercise in consumption.” Not surprisingly, this was a time of upward mobility for the increasingly Americanized immigrants, who were looking for ways to combine their American and Jewish identities. What better way than to fit Chanukah into modern American consumer society?

K2000.4.1

Yiddish newspapers of the 1920s “carried dozens of tempting advertisements for Chanukah gifts, from automobiles to waffle irons.”  While advertisers saw Chanukah as a way to sell a wide array of products, newspaper editors saw the products as a way to sell Chanukah. Editorials encouraged readers “to add the exchange of presents to the roster of Chanukah customs.” As one newspaper counseled, “To command the attention and affection of Jewish children, the holiday must become an occasion for storytelling, gift-giving, and merrymaking.”

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In addition to its commercialization, Joselit writes, “a search for religious parity” proved to be the other key factor in Chanukah’s success in the years after World War II, “when it emerged not only as the Jewish antidote to Christmas but as its functional equivalent.” For second and third generation Americans, Chanukah became an important way to express Jewishness.  By the 1950s the celebration of Chanukah had become “one of the few Jewish ritual practices actually to grow rather than diminish in popularity.”

The perfect Chanukah gift, available from the Museum shop.

 Happy Chanukah everyone!

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Explore Your Roots: The Robert L. Weinberg Family History Center

Posted on November 26th, 2012 by

A blog post by Deborah Weiner, Family History Coordinator.

In a typical week, the Jewish Museum of Maryland receives ten requests for help from individuals looking for information about their families.

Our Robert L. Weinberg Family History Center, located in the JMM library, assists all kinds of people with all kinds of needs. Some seek a relatively simple yet crucial detail, like “where is my grandmother buried?” Others, compiling family trees or writing family histories, want us to give them “everything we have” on their ancestors. In every case, we draw on a tremendous resource to assist them: our Family History collection.

A very creative family tree. JMM 1997.125.37

Even in the Internet age, with so much genealogical information available on the web, our Family History collection constitutes a unique resource that allows us to provide genealogical services unusually extensive for a regional Jewish museum. Here are some highlights:

  • Our cemetery database includes more than 60,000 names of individuals buried in Maryland Jewish cemeteries. While most of the listings are from cemeteries in the Baltimore area, we also have listings from Annapolis, Cumberland, Frederick, Hagerstown, and Salisbury. 

Rosedale cemetery.

  • Funeral records from the Jack Lewis Funeral Home from the 1920s-1930s, 1950s-1960s. This firm, no longer in existence, rivaled Levinson & Bros. in popularity through most of the 20th century.
  • Indexes of records of several Baltimore midwives and mohels allow access to thousands of births and circumcisions from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries.

Rev. A.N. Abramowitz, Baltimore mohel. His circumcision records are part of the JMM family history collection. JMM 1988.155.3.

  • Obituaries from the Baltimore Jewish Times from the 1920s to today, indexed for some decades.
  •  Genealogies and family trees from more than 400 Maryland Jewish families.

These resources were developed through the efforts of numerous volunteers as well as the cooperation of Maryland’s Jewish cemetery associations and congregations. We are constantly working to expand our resources; for example, two volunteer projects now underway include the creation of an index of engagement, marriage, and birth notices in the Baltimore Jewish Times, and a renewed effort to record as-yet-uncharted sections of the historic—and massive—Rosedale cemetery. (We recently crossed the 10,000 mark of burial listings at Rosedale.)

Over the past several years we have worked to make our collections accessible online. Most notably, we partnered with the Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR) to make our burial listings available on JOWBR’s fully searchable online database. We are currently working with JewishGen, JOWBR’s “parent,” to make more of our resources available on the JewishGen website.

JMM 1991.20.30.

There are three ways you can access our Family History collection: online at JOWBR or at our own website (where we’ve posted pdf files of cemetery burials and other indexes), by visiting the museum to do on-site research (by appointment), or by using our research-by-mail service, where we do the research and send you the results (for a fee).

Genealogy is a burgeoning field, as many people have become interested in finding their “roots.” Fortunately anyone with a connection to Jewish Maryland has a great place to start: the Robert L. Weinberg Family History Center of the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

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Becoming Pikesville

Posted on October 12th, 2012 by

By Research Historian Deb Weiner

Last weekend I volunteered on a political campaign in the swing state to the north. As I was sitting in the campaign office in Harrisburg, another group of Baltimore volunteers walked in. One of the women looked at me and said, “You look familiar.” She looked vaguely familiar to me as well. Neither of us could figure out how we knew each other until she offered, “I’m from Pikesville.” I responded, “Oh, I work at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Have you been there?” Turns out she used to work at the Associated Jewish Federation, and we probably met at some kind of Associated-related event.

To anyone from Baltimore, my response would not seem to be a non sequitur. That’s because saying “I’m from Pikesville” is virtually a substitute for saying “I’m Jewish,” but without the awkwardness of announcing your religious identity to a (near) total stranger. The fact is, Pikesville is home to 30 percent of Baltimore-area Jews, according to the most recent Associated Population Study. Even more pertinent, around four out of five Jews live in the northwest portion of the Baltimore metro area, from Upper Park Heights to Owings Mills and beyond, in an area that might realistically be termed “Greater Pikesville.”

Which brings me to the subject of this blog post. Next Wednesday, October 17, we are opening the traveling exhibition “Jews on the Move: Baltimore and the Suburban Exodus, 1945 to 1968.” The exhibition reveals how and why Jews became concentrated in the metro area’s northwest suburbs in the decades after World War II. It was a process that took only a single generation to complete, but remains a powerful fact of Baltimore Jewish life today, several decades later.

It’s a national story, but with a local twist—Baltimore Jews joined the rush to suburbia that occurred across America after World War II, but why they ended up in one particular section of the metro area is a complex tale with a lot of local nuances. Ironically, the exhibition does not really focus on Pikesville, because it wasn’t until the early 1980s that Pikesville beat out Randallstown as the suburb of choice for Jews within northwest Baltimore. What the exhibition does do is show how the “northwest exodus” became firmly established in those early years of suburbanization, leading to the settlement patterns we see today.

By the way, I should mention that the exhibition is opening not here at the JMM, but at Hodson Hall on the Johns Hopkins University campus, where it will be on view until December 17. We created the exhibition in partnership with students in JHU’s Museums and Society program, through a class that JMM staff taught last spring.  The students were from all over (California, New York, D.C. suburbs) but by the time the semester ended they could throw around terms like “Baltimore Beltway” and “Mandell-Ballow” with ease.

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